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The Only War We Had
24Jan2012 | Major Don Martin, USA (Ret)

Posted on 01/26/2012 10:34:18 AM PST by ConorMacNessa

There is nothing quite like the smell of burning human feces in the morning. If this first sentence offends you, I make no apologies. It may offend you because you have never been in combat, or if you were in a combat zone you were far enough in the rear to enjoy modern conveniences.

It reminds me of a Harley-Davidson T-shirt which many riders have worn so proudly, including yours truly. Of course, the shirt is emblazoned with an artist's cool rendition of a raucous H-D, but the words thereon say it all. "If I have to explain, you wouldn't understand!" War is a lot like that.

War is hell. It is not a place for polite tea and crumpets under a Cinzano umbrella in Venice, Paris or London. War is the place you hope your children and grandchildren will never go. War is a place which produces a form of reality unimaginable prior to engaging in it. It is a place which produces heroes and cowards, strength and weakness, darkness and eerie light even when the sun is down, and it can, but does not have to, produce hatred. It also produces love beyond anything previously experienced and grief which never quite leaves one.

Combat is not the thrilling, exciting, romantic glory-days, legendary, epic adventures depicted in books and most war-movies. It is just about everything else. If you seek war as a thrill, I recommend you live at Frontier City, in a movie-theater, or take up bungee jumping. Yes, war will produce adrenalin by the quart! Yes, you will be more alert, or so it is hoped, than you have ever been in your life. It will get your attention in ways you've never dreamed of, not even in your worst nightmares. You will be able to differentiate between the smell of burning feces and burning cordite in the morning or at any other time.

The typical day of a helicopter gun-ship flight crew is not like any other typical day I ever had. It begins with the rising of the sun (or the moon), a quick breakfast, strapping a lot of “stuff” to your person, and involves detailed mission briefings, weather-checking, pre-flight inspections of the aircraft, weapons systems, personal protective gear, communications devices both installed and non-installed in the aircraft. The day involves an attitude adjustment, as one is about to depart from a relatively safe environment, complete with sand-bagged "hootches" (to call them barracks is too generous) and possibly even running water, but I don't recommend you drink it! It may include flushing toilets . . . if the wells are working, the water tower's tank is not dry, and the pressure is up, but that all amounts to a huge "if."

The day will involve teamwork not unlike one learns in football, basketball or rugby. No one in the crew or the "fire-team" of two or three aircraft is more important than the other. Every man is vital to the mission. Survival and success will depend on knowledge, skill, courage (but not recklessness), cooperation, a clear head and a steady hand. A lot will depend on the "fitness" of the aircraft and its navigational, communications and weapons systems. Perhaps the most important factor in success for crews like these, the realization that if engaging the enemy in close combat with friendly forces, you may be feet, even inches away from killing the wrong people! Stark reality.

That knowledge weighs heavier on one's mind than anything I have ever known in my 7+ decades on this earth. It is even more stressful than having the enemy shooting at you and your aircraft. It can be all consuming for some, and there are those who quickly wash out of the gun-ship crewing business for this one factor alone, "Who will I hit today, the enemy or my own troops I am here to support?" Great question with only one acceptable answer!

Once all the routine, but very important preliminary stuff is done, one launches in an aircraft which is a proven war-horse, a Bell Iroquois (Huey), UH-1C gun-ship in this case, but an aircraft which is over-worked and probably over-loaded with fuel and ammo to point that it will NOT hover, at least not on a hot day with high "density altitude," so it has to be "ground-taxied,” both backward and forward, on its skids (no wheels) out to the runway, sans crew chief, door-gunner and machine guns, then very gradually ground-taxied with ever-increasing forward speed until it reaches translational lift, shudders as it achieves actual flight, and no more gracefully than the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina sixty years earlier!

Let's say you are the platoon leader (eight aircraft, circa 35 personnel) and pilot-in-command of the lead aircraft of a fire-team of two. Your wing-man is off to the left or right rear and about one to two hundred meters behind you. He is off-set to avoid flying through the bullets intended for you and your aircraft. This is a lifesaving tactic, one among dozens which have to be automatic for the successful gun-driver and crew. No time to "look it up in a book," as correct, immediate reactions are always a must. It’s not driver’s education in school.

Your co-pilot may be brand new in country, and may know little more than how to fly the aircraft, do some map reading, and hopefully skillfully manage the mini-guns which are really modern-day Gatling guns, but are hydraulically operated, electrically fired. Training comes quickly in combat. The learning curve is steep. Sometimes training is in actual combat, but preferably it is a few days flying over a free-fire area (no civilians, no buildings, no cattle, no enemy or friendly troops) with an experienced combat-hand, live-fire at imaginary targets, learning how to make evasive breaks away from enemy fire, how to support your lead, or lead your wing, how to anticipate enemy locations, and how to hit the correct targets with the correct ordnance, which has already been addressed.

Your wing man may be less experienced than you, but it is wise to have one who is MORE experienced when possible, as his skill, knowledge and quick action may be what saves your life, not only once, but several times in coming days.

As you approach your stand-by area where you will await a call on the portable radio you will set up by your parked aircraft, you begin a descent toward the FARRP (forward area re-arm, refuel point) and the runway, this time at a remote fire-base called Dak To ("Doc Toe"), you smell that smell, kind of like the old Lynyrd Skynyrd song! You have been listening to AFRTS-radio out of Pleiku enroute, the armed forces radio and television service. This is done on one of the navigational radios, as you don't need it to navigate because there is no ADF (Omni-directional) beacon at Dak To anyway. You turn down the volume on Jimi Hendrix , Glen Campbell, The Beatles, Bo Diddly or whomever so you can hear the instructions from the control tower at this remote, tactical airfield.

When cleared to land for refueling, you approach the runway from the East, and the smell of burning human feces overpowers you, that is if you are a new guy. If you've been there a while, it's more like, "Yep, we have arrived at Dak To!" It is the home of an infantry brigade belonging to the 4th Infantry Division, also, temporarily, the 173d Airborne Brigade, and selected Special Forces teams. The burning feces is normal, as there were no real toilets, no modern-day porta-potties, and the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) of the time was to pull out the collection barrels from the backs of the out-houses, douse the contents with diesel fuel, and set them afire. When they had burned out an hour or so later, they were pushed back under the holey thrones. Ah, field sanitation at its weirdest. Dark and dirty work, but someone had to do it. You won't forget the smell, but it beats the smell of burning flesh, which you have already experienced and will again. It's war. It's not a day at Oiler Park watching baseball. War has a taste, feel, smell, sound and a "presence" all its own. It will never quite leave you. You never quite leave it, try as you might.

You refuel; re-check weapons and radios, get clearance to re-locate to parking and beginning your stand-by waiting for something to hit the fan. Nope, you don't go for joy rides or hunting the enemy, as precious time, fuel, ammo and actual tactical emergencies dictate otherwise. The enemy will find friendly forces, including you, and when "it" hits the fan, you will be wanted, needed, called for, vital to the mission, demanded and well utilized, even loved by the guys on the ground if you hit the "correct targets." Yes, I know that is a repeat.

You and your and crews park, prepare for some serious sun-tanning, checkers or domino games, reading and drinking Coca-Colas, sold to us by Montagnard (Dega) girls from a nearby "Mountain People's" village. The cokes taste great and are cool but not cold. They are made locally with real Coca-Cola syrup and creek water (with perhaps a tad of Agent Orange pollution), no carbonation, cooled in the creek overnight! The Montagnard people were on our side, and were in general not fond of the North or South Vietnamese. They are Vietnam's minority, a good, honorable, tough people, and a great story in and of themselves for another time.

As you tan, drink your coke, read a magazine, all the while awaiting the squelch (rushing noise) to break on the PRC-25 radio with a caller requesting gun-ship support at some fire-base or a patrol location, probably within five miles of where you sit, and certainly no more than 15 - 20 miles away, UNLESS it is a special operations mission “across the fence” to places the President said we were NOT flying. Almost as stressful as worrying about shooting the wrong people in the heat of battle, the awaiting of the breaking of that squelch with an urgent plea for guns, AND NOW; well, that's right near the top of the stress-scale, or as we called it, “the pucker factor.” It works on one with surprisingly nerve-wracking results. It is a never-forget feeling, about which I still dream.

Once called upon, strapped in, and flying toward the target area (in less than two minutes), making radio-contact with the friendly troops on the ground; the nerves, fear, doubts and stress go away! Strange. I am eternally grateful for that. Calm comes over one as one realizes, "This is my job, I took an oath, I am well-trained to do this, my fire-team is great, and those guys below need us." Another thought in my weird mind of that era was, "Hey, Martin, it's the O. K. Corral. You are Wyatt Earp, they are the bad guys, and you are going to win this shoot-out." It worked; we did win, every single time. I also admit with no shame that another thought would come to me as we approached a target area. "God be with us. I know this is not my day to die, and I hope You feel that way too, Lord. In Jesus' Name, Amen." Never had thoughts like that? Then you have not been in combat. No atheists to be found in foxholes or cockpits.

In this story, I am avoiding the gory details. Suffice it to say, that for some missions, such as Thanksgiving Day, 1967, at Dak To, Ben Het, Hill 875, we "hot refueled and re-armed" at least five times and flew 12+ hours without ever shutting the engines down. We and other gun crews used up almost the entire Dak To ammo dump's supply of 2.75" rockets, 40mm grenades, and mini-gun ammo in a single day. We took turns eating C-rations and taking care of Mother Nature's call while the other three crew members on each aircraft did the refuel, re-arm work, rotating after each set of sorties. Yes, I had turkey on Thanksgiving Day, turkey-loaf in an olive drab can, doused with Tabasco, wolfed down in about 90 seconds! Others ate ham and Lima beans, which we affectionately called “ham and muthas.” Some had “beanie-weenies,” similar to Van Camp’s pork and beans. We all came home addicted to Tabasco sauce!

The battle at Dak To and nearby vicinity in November and early December 1967 has been historically, officially declared the largest single battle of the twelve-year war in Vietnam. It was even bigger, bloodier and more costly in American lives than any of the various single battles of the Tet Offensive in February 1968, for which we flew dozens of missions.

Task done, friendlies secure for the time being, enemy dispatched or chased away, you revert to your stand-by stress awaiting the squelch to break! The nerves return as you think about where you just were and what you were doing. The calm somehow escapes though it is deathly quiet for the moment. You sit way too close to the jungle and whatever lurks therein, quite likely North Vietnamese scouts or snipers, but hopefully not a whole battalion of troops ready to make big bonfires of two Crocodile gun platoon helicopters! You are not even inside the military-perimeter-proper, rather a quarter-mile away on a dirt runway hastily built on a ridge-line with a jungle-mountain-top as back-drop. Your side-arm on your hip and rifle under your aircraft-seat are hardly fear-invoking to a platoon of North Vietnamese infantrymen.

We often jokingly said, "Well, it isn't much of a war, but it's the only one we have!" Usually someone would chime in with, “Everybody’s got to be someplace!” The former quote was in reference to those who would say the Vietnam War didn't quite measure up in the minds of some older combat veterans, despite the fact that the infantrymen in Vietnam saw more days of real, front-line combat than infantrymen in any other war in which the USA has engaged. Similarly, we helicopter crewmen flew more hours in actual combat than U. S. pilots of any other war. Nope, not much of a war, but the only one we had (at the time), and we fought it with skill, valor and compassion for others, especially our fellow Soldiers, whom we grew to love more than our own brothers back home. We flew, fought, were wounded, bled, laughed and cried together. We became a family, still are today. War produces a lot, mostly bad, awful, tragic results, but such love for fellow warriors never goes away, not even in 40 to 50 years, and I know it never will. I salute my combat-brothers whom I love and my enemies whom I respect and never hated, as there is no room for hatred in my heart. War changes people, but it never changes God’s commands.


End of story - Photos can be provided on request. Thanks, and God bless.

Writer’s note: The absence of any reference to female Soldiers in this piece is intentional because there were no female Soldiers in units such as mine and none in units which we supported at that time. These were combat arms units engaged in frequent actual battle, and the rules of the era did not permit females in such units or situations. I was a soldier eleven years before I ever served with a female Soldier, and only served with three in 24 years. They were all three exceptionally fine Soldiers with whom I would gladly serve again. My own daughter, and outstanding non-commissioned officer (Sergeant), served in combat in Iraq with a combat arms (Armor / Tank) unit. Times have changed. I salute the female Soldiers just as I do the males. Thanks for your service!

Found this article on another forum and thought it was worth sharing for the author's perspectives on combat in the Vietnam War as a helicopter pilot. The author expressly gave me permission to post it.

Etiam non princeps sed usque ad genua, Principis Pacis!
1 posted on 01/26/2012 10:34:18 AM PST by ConorMacNessa
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To: ConorMacNessa

The smell of diesel burning feces in cut in half 55 gal. drums will never leave me. I can see the mama son’s stiring it.

2 posted on 01/26/2012 10:49:24 AM PST by unkus (Silence Is Consent)
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To: unkus
I can see the mama son’s stiring it.
You had civilians burn your $hitters?
[insert inter-service rivalry comment here] :)
3 posted on 01/26/2012 11:15:22 AM PST by oh8eleven (RVN '67-'68)
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To: oh8eleven

Yes we did. Phu Bai.

After the Marines left Camp Eagle (Our name).

4 posted on 01/26/2012 11:33:12 AM PST by unkus (Silence Is Consent)
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