The chopping sounds of the helicopter war
LVN Editor Emeritus
RENO — The loud chopping sounds of helicopters flying over the thick, tangled jungle became a constant day-to-day reminder of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. Referred to both as the first war to enter living rooms on the evening news and a helicopter-driven war primarily relying on the Bell UH-1 Iroquois or “Huey” helicopter, the Vietnam War became one of the longest ones fought in the country’s history.
More than 12,000 helicopters took the fight to the enemy in a war that spanned from the mid-1950s to April 30, 1975, with the fall of Saigon.
THE YOUNG PILOTS
Brig. Gen. Robert J. Hayes served in the U.S. Army as a young pilot fresh out of college in the 1960s, flying a Huey for one year in South Vietnam and then serving for two years on a staff in the Panama Canal Zone where he eventually met his future wife, Peggy. After joining the National Guard in 1972, Hayes enjoyed a distinguished career that covered four decades in Nevada before he retired in 2003. He also earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from the University of Nevada, Reno.
“It’s been almost 52 years since I came back from Vietnam,” said Hayes, who also served as the chief of staff and commander of the Army Guard for Nevada in Carson City. “I’ve never been asked to speak about the Vietnam War or about veterans I am honored to do so today.”
An epitome of a Cold War warrior, Hayes spoke to several hundred veterans — many who deployed to Southeast Asia — at Saturday’s Vietnam War Veterans Remembrance Day in Reno sponsored by Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 989 in Reno.
Hayes first received his Bachelor of Science in Physics from California State Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo and was commissioned a second lieutenant through Cal Poly’s ROTC program in 1966. After attending his Officer Basic Course in engineering, he reported to his first duty station, Fort Benning, Georgia, where he was assigned to the 43rd Engineer Battalion. Yet, the flying bug bit the young lieutenant, and he entered and successfully graduated from rotary wing flight training. In 1967, he was designated an Army aviator and assigned to the 20th Engineer Brigade near Saigon.
“One minute I was chasing co-eds in Southern California, and the next moment I was flying in Southeast Asia,” Hayes recalled. “Most of most friends I grew up with were draftees and had already served when I was going to school.”
Along with many other young men in their late teens or early 20s, Hayes boarded an civilian airplane at Travis Air Force Base northeast of San Francisco and spent the next 20 hours in flight.
“The average age on that plane was 19 to 20 years old. We were all just kids,” he added. “The plane was clean and comfortable, and the stewardesses were young and pretty, and the environment on the plane was in stark contrast to our destination.”
ENTERING A WAR ZONE
As the jet neared the coast of Vietnam, Hayes remembers seeing the white, sandy beaches, turquoise water and beautiful green landscape, but once the soldiers landed, the reality of war sunk in as the plane pulled up to the terminal.
“We saw the bomb craters, the occasional flashes of artillery … it was quite a scene,” he said. “We pulled up to the terminal, pulled up next to a 130 (C-130 transport plane) and there stacked next to the C-130 were dozens of coffins.”
Hayes described the scene as very troublesome.
“We were in a combat zone now,” he thought, his eyes glued on the daily sights and sounds.
Trained as gunship pilot, Hayes discovered his assignment would be a jack of all trades. He would be ferrying in supplies or troops, providing reconnaissance or flying a MEDEVAC (medical evacuation) mission. For the next 12 months, Hayes flew 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week.
“It provided more excitement that I was ready for,” he recalled. “Our missions were pretty intense.”
Each day became a repeat of the previous. Pilots remained in a staging area, waiting for a mission to develop.
“I flew every chance I could,” Hayes said. “I’d show up at 5:30 (a.m.), and the aircraft were ready to go. We would pick up our load or passengers and report to the battalion commander. He was our boss for the day.”
Hayes also discovered that the unit had a shortage of helicopter pilots, and for months, he flew the Huey by himself whether the mission in the area of operations was from the southern tip of the Central Highlands to the southern tip of the Mekong Delta. The Army aggressively sought pilots in the United States, and Hayes said a successful program signed up graduating high-school students to flight school, only if they passed their flight physical and aptitude tests. Within months, the first classes of newly-minted pilots arrived in country.
“They were the backbone of the Army corps of helicopter pilots in Vietnam,” Hayes said. “They were young, great pilots who were fearless and confident.”
Helicopter pilots had to be fearless. Hayes said after many missions, pilots would notice additional bullet holes in their helicopters.
Hayes said he remembers a sense of indifference from the people he met after his Vietnam service. Family members didn’t discuss his war service, and he said his friends didn’t want to offend him.
“I can’t remember anyone asking me about my service or thanking me about it,” he said, comparing to recent homecomings where various veterans’ organizations greet the returning troops from either Iraq or Afghanistan.
“When I returned home from Vietnam, I came home alone, came in unnoticed and unrecognized,” Hayes said, adding only family and loved ones greeted him. There was no airport celebration with young children or bands.
THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE
After Hayes spoke about his Vietnam experiences, Linda Dickinson, president of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 989, and five area mayors read the names of 151 Nevadans who died during the Vietnam War.
Reading the names became personal and emotional for Fallon Mayor Ken Tedford. Of the seven Churchill County men killed in Vietnam, Tedford knew each one of them from either school or activities.
“It was meaningful to read the names from Fallon,” Tedford said. “Some were a little older than me. It was hard to read those names. I was really astonished by the number of names, a tremendous number of names from Las Vegas and Reno. I think of these people who died in a horrific way.”
Tedford said he viewed the exhibits and talked to Vietnam veterans and thought of the ones he knew. He ran into Fred Rogne of Fallon, whose brother Specialist 5 William Rogne was killed with eight other soldiers on March 8, 1970, when their Huey crashed into a tree line in heavy fog flying from Duc Lap from Ban Me Thout.
“It brings back sad memories because he was killed over there,” said Rogne, also a Vietnam veteran, while viewing a static display of photos from his brother’s unit, the 1st Aviation Brigade/155th Assault Helicopter Company.
Rogne, who visited the displays with his wife Licia, said, he attended a Vietnam veterans reunion last year. He said it’s never too late to remember those who served, and he met many fellow veterans at the Reno event.
“I saw many old friends and thoroughly enjoyed reminiscing with everyone including the vendors and the many veterans’ organizations represented that day,” said Carson City Mayor Bob Crowell, who also served in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy. “You could not only see but feel the pride of our veterans of all services. This was one of the best organized Vietnam Veterans event in which I have had the honor of participating. As we say in the Navy—Bravo Zulu (well done) to everyone who had a hand in making that day truly one to remember.”
HONORING PILOTS, CREWMEN
The Vietnam remembrance day had become personal for Congressman Mark Amodei, a Cold War era-veteran who served in the U.S. Army in the 1980s.
“It was the war I grew up with. It was the first TV war,” said the Carson City Republican, who serves the second Congressional District. “When events happened in World War I, World War II or Korea, it was weeks or months before we knew what happened.”
Vietnam changed that. Amodei said public opinion was judged in real time.
Amodei also discussed his role as a member of the House Armed Services subcommittee and how he was honored to introduce legislation for a memorial near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery to honor helicopter pilots and their crewmen from all services who flew in Vietnam. He said he was also frustrated with the number of roadblocks the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association faced in having the monument placed, which began in 2014.
Ken Fritz, president of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association’s California North chapter, said the group appreciated Amodei’s involvement.
“We spearheaded it and had him back us up on it,” Fritz said, adding the congressman spoke at the organization’s reunion in Reno in 2016.
Amodei also noted about 10 percent of the military deaths in Vietnam involved helicopter pilots and their flight crews. Almost 5,000 helicopter pilots and crewmembers representing all military services lost their lives conducting missions during the Vietnam War. Almost a year to the day on April 18, 2018, thousands of veterans and military families attended a dedication for the pilots’ memorial. Amodei said the veterans earned more than perseverance and toughness during their service in Southeast Asia.
“They served in Vietnam, and it wasn’t easy,” Amodei said. “Never should any nation abandon its warriors. They were told to go do a job …thank you for your courage.”
Of the more than 12,000 helicopters operating in Vietnam, more than 5,000 were destroyed by combat or accidents.
Helicopters were used in more than 850,000 medical evacuation missions conducted during that war, and were responsible for boosting survival rates for the wounded to as high as 99 percent.
Records show tail numbers for 6,994 Hueys that served in the Vietnam War, almost all with the U.S. Army. There are certainly some missing from these records.
Total helicopter pilots killed in the Vietnam War was 2,165. Total non-pilot crew members were 2,712. Based on a database received from the Pentagon, the VHPA estimate that more than 40,000 helicopter pilots served in the Vietnam War.
Killed in Hueys – 1,151 pilots and 1,231 non-pilot crew members.
Source: Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association