Compass and a Camera, A Year in Vietnam

With a compass to direct him in his job as a forward observer and a personal camera to document his experiences and keep him connected to his creative side, Vietnam veteran Steven Burchik was lucky enough to make it home and years later decided to write about the most challenging year of his life.

compass-cameraLike any experience, his year spent with the First Infantry Division stationed in the rice paddies near Saigon included good times as well as bad. He candidly recalls how, although he believed communism to be a serious threat in the world, he soon learned that a guerrilla war is a difficult one to fight, and survival rather than victory quickly became his focus. But he also remembers the exhilaration of helicopter rides over serpentine rivers and the time he introduced village kids to a gumball machine.

A unique memoir of the war, Compass and a Camera pulls not only from Burchik’s memories, but also from the daily letters he wrote to his fiancée and includes numerous photographs from his collection of over four thousand. The images alone make this book a must-have for any history buff or fellow veteran.

Available on Amazon.com
http://www.amazon.com/Compass-Camera-Vietnam-Steven-Burchik/dp/0692276297

Semper Share:

Ride The Thunder Movie

By Tami Jackson – jackson.tamara@comcast.net

RICHARD BOTKIN SERVED ACTIVE IN THE MARINES FROM 1980 – 1983, THEN 12 YEARS IN THE RESERVES. BOTKIN IS A MARINE’S MARINE AND, WHEN THIS TRUE STORY FELL IN HIS LAP, HE FELT COMPELLED TO MAKE IT HIS MISSION.


Though his service post-dates the Vietnam War, many of the men who mentored Rich Botkin, heroes he greatly admires, were Vietnam Veterans.

In Ride the Thunder, Botkin attempts to give a “30,000 foot view of and a fighting hole view of the war through the experiences of … 3 American Marine officers and … 2 South Vietnamese officers.”

The book, the story, highlights the difference between the North Vietnamese (NVA…the Communists) and the South Vietnamese (RVN) — the RVN were good guys. Incredibly hard-fighting good guys.

Ride the Thunder instructs about the Covan (trusted advisors), the TQLC (RVN Marines) and more, about which the average American is woefully uninformed.

Protagonists in Ride the Thunder include Americans (the late) USMC Col. John Ripley, USMC Col (Ret) Gerry Turley, USMC Capt George Philip, and Vietnamese Marine LtCol Le Ba Binh (“the Chesty Puller of the Vietnamese Marine Corps”) and Vietnamese Marine Nguyen Luong.

Ride the Thunder spans the years of American involvement in the war (1954 – 1975), with special emphasis on American and Vietnamese Marines. A central event in the book is the Easter Offensive, which was much bigger (by about 50%) than the better known Tet Offensive.

Radio talk show host and Botkin friend, Hugh Hewitt, divides the story into: pre-Tet; Tet; Tet to the Easter Offensive; Easter Offensive to collapse; and what happens in Vietnam afterwards.

In the days of the Vietnam War, America was experiencing unprecedented demonstrations against the war, spurred on by mis-reporting by many in media, including the venerable and trusted Walter Cronkite.

Subsequent generations of Americans have been taught that Vietnam was unwinnable, that the US involvement was ignoble, that our military were unheroic in that conflict…all of which are lies and distortions.

Why was Vietnam lost?

Many contributing factors, but 2 were chief among them.
The likes of Cronkite, John Kerry, and Jane Fonda helped form an intensely negative national perception of the war. And the very liberal 93rd Congress passed the Case-Church Amendment (prohibited direct US involvement) and the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974 (prohibited US funding and indirect support), thereby pulled the plug on all US support and funding.

The title of the book, and now the movie, comes from the famous Teddy Roosevelt “Man in the Arena” speech of April 23, 1910.

Semper Share:

“Welcome Home” Trailer

From YouTube:

“Welcome Home” is a new series being produced by Sleeping Dog Productions, Inc. It tells the story of Viet Nam Veterans, from all branches of the service. It is scheduled for release in 2015, the 40th anniversary year of the end of the War. It is a thank you — and a welcome home that is long, long, overdue.

For updates on the series visit our website, www.sleepingdogtv.com

Semper Share:

Why We Fought & Why We Would Do it Again

American Legion Editorial
By Jim Webb, September 2003

Against a backdrop of political mismanagement and social angst, history has failed to respect those who gave their all to the war in Vietnam.

marineh2
Forty years ago, Asia was at a vital crossroads, moving into an uncertain future dominated by three different historical trends. The first involved the aftermath of the carnage and destruction of World War II, which left scars on every country in the region and dramatically changed Japan’s role in East Asian affairs. The second was the sudden, regionwide end of European colonialism, which created governmental vacuums in every second-tier country except Thailand and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines. The third was the emergence of communism as a powerful tool of expansionism by military force, its doctrine and strategies emanating principally from the birthplace of the Communist International: the Soviet Union.

Europe’s withdrawal from the region dramatically played into the hands of communist revolutionary movements, especially in the wake of the communist takeover of China in 1949. Unlike in Europe, these countries had never known Western-style democracy. In 1950, the partitioned country of Korea exploded into war when the communist North invaded South Korea, with the Chinese Army joining the effort six months later. Communist insurgencies erupted throughout Indochina. In Malaysia, the British led a 10-year anti-guerrilla campaign against China-backed revolutionaries. A similar insurgency in Indonesia brought about a communist coup attempt, also sponsored by the Chinese, which was put down in 1965.

The situation inside Vietnam was the most complicated. First, for a variety of reasons the French had not withdrawn from their long-term colony after World War II, making it easy for insurgents to rally the nationalistic Vietnamese to their side. Second, the charismatic, Soviet-trained communist leader Ho Chi Minh had quickly consolidated his anti-French power base just after the war by assassinating the leadership of competing political groups that were both anti-French and anti-communist. Third, once the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953, the Chinese had shifted large amounts of sophisticated weaponry to Ho Chi Minh’s army. The Viet Minh’s sudden acquisition of larger-caliber weapons and field artillery such as the 105-millimeter Howitzer abruptly changed the nature of the war and contributed heavily to the French humiliation at Dien Bien Phu.

Fourth, further war became inevitable when U.S.-led backers of the incipient South Vietnamese democracy called off a 1956 election agreed upon after Vietnam was divided in 1954. In geopolitical terms, this failure to go forward with elections was prudent, since it was clear a totalitarian state had emerged in the north. President Eisenhower’s frequently quoted admonition that Ho Chi Minh would get 75 percent of the vote was not predicated on the communist leader’s popularity but on the impossibility of getting a fair vote in communist-controlled North Vietnam. But in propaganda terms, it solidified Ho Chi Minh’s standing and in many eyes justified the renewed warfare he would begin in the south two years later.

In 1958, the communists unleashed a terrorist campaign in the south. Within two years, their northern-trained squads were assassinating an average of 11 government officials a day. President Kennedy referred to this campaign in 1961 when he decided to increase the number of American soldiers operating inside South Vietnam. “We have talked about and read stories of 7,000 to 15,000 guerrillas operating in Vietnam, killing 2,000 civil officers a year and 2,000 police officers a year – 4,000 total,” Kennedy said. “How we fight that kind of problem, which is going to be with us all through this decade, seems to me to be one of the great problems now before the United States.”

Among the local populace, the communist assassination squads were the “stick,” threatening to kill anyone who officially affiliated with the South Vietnamese government. Along with the assassination squads came the “carrot,” a highly trained political cadre that also infiltrated South Vietnam from the north. The cadre helped the people prepare defenses in their villages, took rice from farmers as taxes and recruited Viet Cong soldiers from the local young population. Spreading out into key areas – such as those provinces just below the demilitarized zone, those bordering Laos and Cambodia, and those with future access routes to key cities – the communists gained strong footholds.

The communists began spreading out from their enclaves, fighting on three levels simultaneously. First, they continued their terror campaign, assassinating local leaders, police officers, teachers and others who declared support for the South Vietnamese government. Second, they waged an effective small-unit guerrilla war that was designed to disrupt commerce, destroy morale and clasp local communities to their cause. And finally, beginning in late 1964, they introduced conventional forces from the north, capable of facing, if not defeating, main force infantry units – including the Americans – on the battlefield. Their gamble was that once the United States began fighting on a larger scale – as it did in March 1965 – its people would not support a long war of attrition. As Ho Chi Minh famously put it, “For every one of yours we kill, you will kill 10 of ours. But in the end it is you who will grow tired.”

Ho Chi Minh was right. The infamous “body counts” were continuously disparaged by the media and the antiwar movement. Hanoi removed the doubt in 1995, when on the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon officials admitted having lost 1.1 million combat soldiers dead, with another 300,000 “still missing.”

Communist losses of 1.4 million dead compared to America’s losses of 58,000 and South Vietnam’s 245,000 stand as stark evidence that eliminates many myths about the war. The communists, and particularly the North Vietnamese, were excellent and determined soldiers. But the “wily, elusive guerrillas” that the media loved to portray were not exclusively wily, elusive or even guerrillas when one considers that their combat deaths were four times those of their enemies, combined. And an American military that located itself halfway around the world to take on a determined enemy on the terrain of the enemy’s choosing was hardly the incompetent, demoralized and confused force that so many antiwar professors, journalists and filmmakers love to portray.

Why Did We Fight?
The United States recognized South Vietnam as a political entity separate from North Vietnam, just as it recognized West Germany as separate from communist-controlled East Germany and just as it continues to recognize South Korea from communist-controlled North Korea. As signatories of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization, we pledged to defend South Vietnam from external aggression. South Vietnam was invaded by the north, just as certainly, although with more sophistication, as South Korea was invaded by North Korea. The extent to which the North Vietnamese, as well as antiwar Americans, went to deny this reality by pretending the war was fought only by Viet Cong soldiers from the south is, historically, one of the clearest examples of their disingenuous conduct. At one point during the war, 15 of North Vietnam’s 16 combat divisions were in the south.

How Did We Fight?
The Vietnam War varied year by year and region by region, our military’s posture unavoidably mirroring political events in the United States. Too often in today’s America we are left with the images burned into a weary nation’s consciousness at the very end of the war, when massive social problems had been visited on an army that was demoralized, sitting in defensive cantonments and simply waiting to be withdrawn. While reflecting America’s final months in Vietnam, they hardly tell the story of the years of effort and battlefield success that preceded them.

Little recognition has been given in this country of how brutal the war was for those who fought it on the ground and how well our military performed. Dropped onto the enemy’s terrain 12,000 miles away from home, America’s citizen-soldiers performed with a tenacity and quality that may never be truly understood. Those who believe the war was fought incompetently on a tactical level should consider the enormous casualties to which the communists now admit. And those who believe that it was a “dirty little war” where the bombs did all the work might contemplate that it was the most costly war the U.S. Marine Corps has ever fought. Five times as many Marines died in Vietnam as in World War I, three times as many as in Korea. And the Marines suffered more total casualties, killed and wounded, in Vietnam than in all of World War II.

Another allegation was that our soldiers were over-decorated during the Vietnam War. James Fallows says in his book “National Defense” that by 1971, we had given out almost 1.3 million medals for bravery in Vietnam, as opposed to some 1.7 million for all of World War II. Others have repeated the figure, including the British historian Richard Holmes in his book “Acts of War.” This comparison is incorrect for a number of reasons. First, these totals included air medals, rarely awarded for bravery. We awarded more than 1 million air medals to Army soldiers during Vietnam. Air medals were almost always given on a points basis for missions flown, and it was not unusual to see a helicopter pilot with 40 air medals because of the nature of his job.

If we compare the top three actual gallantry awards, the Army awarded:
289 Medals of Honor in World War II and 155 in Vietnam
4,434 Distinguished Service Crosses in World War II and 846 in Vietnam
73,651 Silver Stars in World War II against 21,630 in Vietnam

The Marine Corps, which lost 103,000 killed or wounded out of some 400,000 sent to Vietnam, awarded:
47 Medals of Honor (34 posthumously)
362 Navy Crosses (139 posthumously)
2,592 Silver Stars

Second, although the Army awarded another 1.3 million “meritorious” Bronze Stars and Army Commendation Medals in Vietnam, this was hardly unique. After World War II, Army Regulation 600-45 authorized every soldier who had received either a Combat Infantryman’s Badge or a Combat Medical Badge to also be awarded a meritorious Bronze Star. The Army has no data regarding how many soldiers received Bronze Stars through this blanket procedure.

Atrocities?
We made errors, although nowhere on the scale alleged by those who have a stake in disparaging our effort. Fighting a well-trained enemy who seeks cover in highly contested populated areas where civilians often assist the other side is the most difficult form of warfare. The most important distinction is that the deliberate killing of innocent civilians was a crime in the U.S. military. We held ourselves accountable for My Lai. And yet we are still waiting for the communists to take responsibility for the thousands of civilians deliberately killed by their political cadre as a matter of policy. A good place for them to start holding their own forces accountable would be Hue, where during the 1968 Tet Offensive more than 2,000 locals were systematically executed during the brief communist takeover of the city.

What Went Wrong?
Beyond the battlefield, just about everything one might imagine.

The war was begun, and fought, without clear political goals. Its battlefield complexities were never fully understood by those who were judging, and commenting upon, American performance. As a rifle platoon and company commander in the infamous An Hoa Basin west of Da Nang, on any given day my Marines could be fighting three different wars: one against terrorism, one against guerrillas and one against conventional forces. The implications of these challenges, as well as our successes in dealing with them, never seemed to penetrate an American populace inundated by negative press stories filed by reporters, particularly television journalists, who had no clue about the real tempo of the war. And one of the most under-reported revelations after the war ended was that several top reporters were compromised while in Vietnam, by communist agents who had managed to gain employment as their assistants, thus shaping in a large way their reporting.

Most importantly, Vietnam became an undeclared war fought against the background of a highly organized dissent movement at home. Few Americans who grew up after the war know that a large part of this dissent movement was already in place before the Vietnam War began. Many who wished for revolutionary changes in America had pushed for them through the vehicles of groups such as the ban-the-bomb movement in the 1950s and the civil-rights movement of the early and mid-1960s. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the infamous antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society was created at the University of Michigan through the Port Huron Statement in 1962 – three full years before American ground troops landed at Da Nang. The SDS hoped to bring revolution to America through the issue of race. They and other extremist groups soon found more fertile soil on the issue of the war.

Former communist colonel Bui Tin, a highly placed propaganda officer during the war, recently published a memoir in which he specifically admitted a truth that was assumed by American fighting men for years. The Hanoi government assumed from the beginning that the United States would never prevail in Vietnam so long as the dissent movement, which they called “the Rear Front,” was successful at home. Many top leaders of this movement coordinated efforts directly with Vietnamese communist officials in Hanoi. Such coordination often included visiting the North Vietnamese capital – for instance, during the planning stages for the October 1967 march on the Pentagon – a few weeks before the siege of Khe Sanh kicked into high gear and a few months before the Tet Offensive.

The majority of the American people never truly bought the antiwar movement’s logic. While it is correct to say many wearied of an ineffective national strategy as the war dragged on, they never stopped supporting the actual goals for which the United States and South Vietnam fought. As late as September 1972, a Harris survey indicated overwhelming support for continued bombing of North Vietnam – 55 percent to 32 percent – and for mining North Vietnamese harbors – 64 percent to 22 percent. By a margin of 74 percent to 11 percent, those polled also agreed that “it is important that South Vietnam not fall into the control of the communists.”

Was It Worth It?
On a human level, the war brought tragedy to hundreds of thousands of American homes through death, disabling wounds and psychological scars. Many other Vietnam veterans were stigmatized by their own peers as a classic Greek tragedy played out before the nation’s eyes. Those who did not go, particularly among the nation’s elites, were often threatened by the acts of those who did and as a consequence inverted the usual syllogism of service. If I did not go to a war because I believed it was immoral, what does it say about someone who did? If someone who fought is perceived as having been honorable, what does that say about someone who was asked to and could have but did not?

Marines in Hue
Marines in Hue

Vietnam veterans, most of whom entered the military just after leaving high school, had their educational and professional lives interrupted during their most formative years. In many parts of the country and in many professional arenas, their having served their country was a negative when it came to admission into universities or being hired for jobs. The fact that the overwhelming majority of those who served were able to persist and make successful lives for themselves and their families is strong testament to the quality of Americans who actually did step forward and serve.

On a national level, and in the eyes of history, the answer is easier. One can gain an appreciation for what we attempted to achieve in Vietnam by examining the aftermath of the communist victory in 1975. A gruesome holocaust took place in Cambodia, the likes of which had not been seen since World War II. Two million Vietnamese fled their country – mostly by boat. Thousands lost their lives in the process. This was the first such diaspora in Vietnam’s long and frequently tragic history. Inside Vietnam, a million of the south’s best young leaders were sent to re-education camps; more than 50,000 perished while imprisoned, and others remained captives for as long as 18 years. An apartheid system was put into place that punished those who had been loyal to the United States, as well as their families, in matters of education, employment and housing. The Soviet Union made Vietnam a client state until its own demise, pumping billions of dollars into the country and keeping extensive naval and air bases at Cam Ranh Bay. In fact, communist Vietnam did not truly start opening up to the outside world until the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Would I Do It Again?
Others are welcome to disagree, but on this I have no doubt. Like almost every Marine I have ever met, my strongest regret is that perhaps I could have done more. But no other experience in my life has been more important than the challenge of leading Marines during those extraordinarily difficult times. Nor am I alone in this feeling. The most accurate poll of the attitudes of those who served in Vietnam – Harris, 1980 – showed that 91 percent were glad they’d served their country, and 74 percent enjoyed their time in the service. Additionally, 89 percent agreed that “our troops were asked to fight in a war which our political leaders in Washington would not let them win.”

On that final question, history will surely be kinder to those who fought than to those who directed – or opposed – the war.

Semper Share:

Drive On

My good friend Jim Hatch (USMC, RVN) is a talented artist and one of my favorite songs he does is called “Drive On”, written by Johnny Cash after he and his wife June returned from a USO tour in Viet Nam. With Jim’s permission, please take a minute and listen to “Drive On!

If you enjoy “Drive On”, drop Jim a note and you might even want to buy his awesome CD with more super songs.

Jim was in-country with HMM-161, H&MS-17 & VMGR-152.
His e-mail address is cwfhat@pacbell.net

Another good friend, Gordon Boswell 1st Force Recon, Vietnam, says when times get tough, he remembers this song and just drives on!

Share your thoughts.

“Drive On”

I got a friend named Whiskey Sam
He was my boonierat buddy for a year in Nam
He said I think my country got a little off track
Took ’em twenty-five years to welcome me back
But, it’s better than not coming back at all
Many a good man
I saw fall And even now,
every time I dream I hear the men
and the monkeys in the jungle scream

Drive on, don’t mean nothin’
My children love me , but they don’t understand
And I got a woman who knows her man
Drive on, don’t mean nothin’, drive on

I remember one night,
Tex and me Rappelled in on a hot L.Z.
We had our 16’s on rock and roll
But, with all that fire,
was scared and cold
We were crazy, we were wild
And I have seen the tiger smile
I spit in a bamboo viper’s face
And I’d be dead , but by God’s grace

Drive on, don’t mean nothin’
My children love me, but they don’t understand
And I got a woman who knows her man
Drive on, don’t mean nothin’, drive on

It was a real slow walk in a real sad rain
And nobody tried to be John Wayne
I came home, but Tex did not
And I can’t talk about the hit he got
I got a little limp now when
I walk Got a little tremolo when
I talk But my letter read from Whiskey Sam
You’re a walkin’ talkin’ miracle from Vietnam

Drive on, don’t mean nothin’
My children love me, but they don’t understand
And I got a woman who knows her man
Drive on, don’t mean nothin’, drive on

Semper Share:

Drive On!

My good friend Jim Hatch (USMC, RVN) is a talented artist and one of my favorite songs he does is called “Drive On”, written by Johnny Cash after he and his wife June returned from a USO tour in Viet Nam. With Jim’s permission, please take a minute and listen to “Drive On!

If you enjoy “Drive On”, drop Jim a note and you might even want to buy his awesome CD with more super songs.

Jim was in-country with HMM-161, H&MS-17 & VMGR-152.
His e-mail address is cwfhat@pacbell.net

Semper Share:

Recon Team Lunchbox

by Rod Carlson

It was nearly noon and I was sitting in the cockpit looking up at rotor blades turn slower and slower and finally lurch to a stop. Our helicopter had just touched down at an obscure landing pad on the outskirts of Danang.

Bruce Lake reached over his head to the instrument panel and flipped the lever that turned off the screaming turbine used to power the aircraft’s systems during shutdowns. Helicopter aircraft commanders typically order their copilots to handle such details, but Bruce Lake and I were pals, both first lieutenants and he simply wasn’t that kind of guy. Bruce Lake hefted himself out of his armor-plated wingchair and squeezed through the narrow passage to the cargo compartment that was like the inside of a commuter plane but without seats.

Even though we’d only flown a few minutes from Marble Mountain Air Facility to the home of the First Marine Reconnaissance Battalion. Our crew chief, Jawarski and our gunner Davis, both corporals, had already opened the overhead doors and were examining the engines and hydraulic lines. Like two Mayo Clinic specialists, their gloved hands were poking around in our chopper’s innards in search of the slightest imperfection.

In addition to another H46 tandem-rotor helicopter parked behind us on the acre-sized steel landing pad, there were two Huey gunships, each with loaded rocket pods and machineguns bristling from every orifice. The gunships had arrived just ahead of us were waiting for us. Of the four pilots, three were captains and the other a real pro, Major Dowling, had a shiny gold oak leaf on his cover. Like us, they wore green fire-proof Nomex flight suits and for taking notes, they were carrying the kneeboards which when flying were held with elastic to their thighs. Strolling toward us they looked like a casual foursome headed for the first tee on a Saturday morning.

Compared to Bruce Lake, I was new to the Squadron, call sign “Highboy,” and still had much to learn, but I’d flown 1st Recon missions and was fascinated by its encampment that was built like an Incan village on the sides of a small mountain. Actually it was less a mountain and more of a overgrown, tropical butte, a Shangri-La rising several hundred feet above the valley floor just west of the city. From where we stood on the landing pad, the recon headquarters was hidden beneath thick jungle vegetation. Climbing the near vertical slope required slogging up a series of crude stairways and following a winding, switch-back trail ever upward.

Along the trail there were small red signs with yellow letters spelling words like ARMORY and INTEL that identified the function of various shed-like structures. The sign by the door that Major Dowling held open for the rest of us simply read OPS. We filed inside and arrayed ourselves in a casual arc in the center of a relatively large room near an island of desks covered with radio gear and occupied by a half dozen or so Marines. The walls were covered with pale-green topographic maps, each with a clear acetate overlay amply annotated by a black grease pen.

Against the outside brightness at the end of the room, a silhouette of a man stood motionless. When our shuffling and milling had subsided, a colonel stepped forward. He was old, rock trim, with a chiseled face and a bolt-cutter jaw. There were plenty of folding chairs about, but he didn’t suggest we sit.

“Here’s the deal,” he said moving close to one of the maps and squinting. “Lunch Box is a seven-man patrol that’s been out here a week, supposedly patrolling along this route.” He pointed to a black line that snaked erratically within a dinner plate-sized area on the map. “I say supposedly because we haven’t heard from them in five days. For certain, they haven’t been captured. They’re either dead or purposefully silent. If the latter, they’re being dogged and in constant contact with the NVA.” I didn’t know much about recon but I knew that “constant contact” meant a running gunfight in the jungle. Even though the colonel was calm, it sounded about as bad as it could be.

The colonel gave us the exact map coordinates, the bearing and distance in nautical miles from the Danang Tacan station, our only radio navigational aid, and most important, Lunchbox’s radio frequency. Then the colonel’s expression sagged. Suddenly he seemed older and tired. He ran his eyes over us, looking at each of us, and then quietly said “God speed, Gentlemen.”

Gravity expedited our descent and soon we were gathered in the shade of our helicopter. Major Dowling stood on the aft ramp and outlined the mission, repeated what we’d heard on the mountain and added his view of what was going to happen. Nothing fancy, we’d fly in loose formation, slow to not outrun the gunships to a point five miles short of where Lunchbox would hopefully sing out. Then, and not until then, we’d know how bad it was and we’d improvise from there. With all heads tilted forward, we studied our maps as the major spoke, his words, no doubt, accompanied by our own mental images of the terrain and anticipated action.

“We’ve got first dibs on two F-4 Phantoms if we need help,” Major Dowling said. “And we probably will because of the heavy vegetation. They’ve got full bomb loads of 500 pounders. Crank up when you see my blades turn.” He started toward his gunship first at a walk, then running. Bruce Lake and I walked up the ramp toward Ski and Davis who helped us into our twenty-pound armored chest protectors affectionately known as “bullet bouncers.”

Within minutes, our gaggle of four was flying slow in a relaxed formation through and around billowing clouds, some round and wispy, some towering and dense, some starkly white, and others pink or yellow. Below, stretching to the horizon in every direction was a choppy ocean of green rolling, undulating hills interspaced with sharp and jagged ridges and peaks. Everywhere a carpet of dense green, everywhere, except for a ribbon of silver, an endless river snaking around the uplands.

To deny the NVA time to react, Major Dowling had it figured so that we’d get to our destination exactly on time. But time was running out. We were getting close. I repositioned my shoulder holster so I’d know exactly where to reach for my .45 automatic. Bruce Lake noticed my final preparation for battle and, undoubtedly sensing my nervousness, nodded his approval. “There they are,” he pointed at the two Phantoms just before they disappeared behind a towering cumulous cloud, but not before both had left their calling cards, corkscrew trails of black exhaust.

We watched the pair of Phantoms make their practice runs. They circled around to the north and then dove, one after the other, into the jungle. They pulled up at the last second and soared back to altitude as though being swung on the end of an invisible rope and then disappeared behind a mountainous cloud.

In a few seconds, just as we’d finished our orbiting turn, the Phantom appeared again in the distance. Evading a cloud, he’d circled too far to the south and was now descending rapidly and banking hard to the right, to get back on course. The Phantom didn’t move to the left or right or up or down. It just kept getting bigger in our windscreen. With our mutual closure rate of 500 knots, the Phantom was on us in a flash, but by then, Bruce Lake had cut the power and bought us a hundred feet. The Phantom’s shockwave hit us like a fist as it passed so close we could see the small type on the olive drab bombs under its wings.

We looked at each other. Bruce Lake was expressionless. All I could do was laugh, “I guess he didn’t see us,” I said. Bruce Lake just scowled and shook his head. During those few seconds when we’d almost died but didn’t, our phantoms had over flown the target and each dropped a five-hundred pounder. We couldn’t see the bomb, only cloud of black smoke and dirt and shock waves rippling through the jungle in concentric circles like a pebble tossed into calm water. After two more runs, Major Dowling said, “Highboy One, you’re cleared in, play it cool, the zone could still be hot. Call your final approach.”

Bruce Lake cut the power, pushed the nose over into a vertical dive and banked the helicopter into a steep right-hand turn—instantly we were spiraling down at 2000 feet per minute directly over the brown smudge surrounded by green jungle. With each revolution, the landing zone grew larger until I could see splintered trees and deep craters. At what looked to me like the last second, he raised the nose, added some power and radioed “Highboy One on short final,” and then over the intercom to Ski and Davis, who were looking down the barrels of their fifties, “Be careful. Don’t shoot to the west, that’ll be Lunchbox.”

The landing zone was an open wasteland of craters and splintered trees. I pointed at a level swath of dirt and Bruce Lake nodded. Still descending, he waited, then banked the helicopter to the right, added power to brake us and kicked in enough right rudder to complete the U-turn just before he landed. Except for the deafening racket of the two gunships loosing their barrages of rockets and machinegun fire, we were on the ground, alone, in a naked, painful silence. I felt my fingers inching toward the .45. Just as my gut was about to explode, Ski yelled and I looked back to see that he’d left his .50 and was back at the ramp pulling a Marine into the cabin. Behind him, others were now clambering aboard. Then Ski sprinted forward toward his gun yelling “Got ’em all, let’s go.”

As Bruce Lake applied max power and catapulted us into a shallow climb, I was jolted by heart-stopping explosions. Just behind my head Davis had started shooting his .50. Davis wasn’t taking any chances. The recon team wasn’t either—I looked back in time to watch them using the butts of their M-16s to break the windows and start shooting out both sides like a stagecoach hightailing it through Indian country. By fifteen hundred feet, we’d leveled off and I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned and saw a face covered in camouflage paint and a weeks’ worth of dirt. It was Lunchbox leader. His large, white teeth gleamed as his lips mimed “thank you.” I watched him go back to his men who were leaning against their backpacks, grinning and slapping each other and enjoying the cold breeze blowing through the open cabin. I looked over at Bruce Lake. He was leaning back in the seat, with his fingers light on the controls, and a slight, self-satisfied smile on his lips. After a few peaceful minutes, we were back on the ground. As the recon team shuffled down the ramp, their colonel was there to greet them. I could see his face as he counted heads and then he look up at us and smiled.

Then, just as we were about to take off, I realized that someone was standing by my side window. One of the recon team was looking up at me. He was gaunt and small, dwarfed by his pack. He had the look of someone who’d grown up impoverished, maybe working in an Appalachian coal mine. Over the drumming of the rotor blades and the howl of the engines, he rose to his full height and yelled, “Anytime, anyplace you need help, just holler and I’ll be there,” He then saluted smartly, smiled and walked away. I clicked the mike and repeated what he’d said.

As we both watched him trudge toward his comrades, Bruce Lake replied softy, “Semper Fi, Marine.”

I reached for a knob on the instrument panel, dialed in a new frequency, reported mission complete and added that Highboy was available.

I checked my watch. We’d flown just 53 minutes. The afternoon was still young.

Semper Share:

Touch A Name On The Wall

During the USMC Vietnam Helicopter Association’s event at “The Wall South” in Pensacola (1998), we had several flyovers by helicopters. I was in the H-34 as it flew over (2:04 into the video, piloted by Larry Turner and Ben Cascio) and it sure got a warm reception from the crowd, most of who hadn’t seen an H-34 since Vietnam.

It was an honor to part of this memorial service especially since my good friend Gordon “Bos” Boswell, 1st Force Recon, Vietnam, was riding in the H-34 with me. Bos was medevac’d on several occasions during his tours in-country; the helicopters and those who flew and crewed them hold a special place in his heart. My good friend Jim Hatch sang “Touch a Name on the Wall”, it’s a great tribute to those who never made it home.

Semper Fi!
Cpl. Beddoe USMC 1981-1985

Semper Share:

Operation SHUFLY, 50th anniversary

“Headquarters Marine Corps, Division of Public Affairs, is currently organizing a series of commemorative events in honor of the 50th anniversary of Operation SHUFLY, the first U.S. Marine Corps engagement in combat operations leading to the Vietnam War. If you served in one of the squadrons listed below as part of this Operation, DivPA is interested in speaking with you to discuss your possible participation in a commemorative event in 2012. Interested Marines should contact Jeanette Casselano at 703-614-1034 or by email at jeanette.casselano.ctr@usmc.mil. ”

MABS-16, Sub Unit 2
9 Apr 1962 – 30 Nov 1964

HMM-362
9 Apr 1962 – 31 Jul 1962

HMM-163
1 Aug 1962 – 11 Jan 1963

HMM-162
12 Jan – 6 Jun 1963, 1 Jul – 7 Oct 1964

HMM-261
7 Jun 1963 – 30 Sep 1963

HMM-361
1 Oct 1963 – 31 Jan 1964

HMM-364
1 Feb 1964 – 30 Jun 1964

HMM-365
8 Oct 1964 – 30 Nov 1964

Your assistance in spreading this message is greatly appreciated and we hope you can support. Thanks in
advance, and we look forward to hearing from you.

Lina Suarez
Headquarters Marine Corps
Division of Public Affairs
Community Relations
703.614.8010

Semper Share: