It was a very special unit

“I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. I was the oldest of six boys, no girls, in middle class America. My dad was a great man and my mom was a wonderful mother.  

My dad was a B-17 pilot in World War II. He flew 35 missions out of England. He volunteered to fly in the Pacific, but thankfully the war ended as he finished his training. My mom’s two brothers were also pilots. My grandfather joined the Signal Corp in the Army and was also in pilot training during World War I. My dad didn’t really talk about the war.  

He was the youngest of 9 kids. I read some letters he sent back to his family during World War II. Whatever the Army paid him, he sent home. Here’s a guy who did all his country ever asked him, and I don’t think he had time to be scared.  

The Eighth Army Air Corps had a reunion in Omaha about 25 years ago. His crew all came. They fought together, they came home together, and they stayed connected. They all came over to dinner at my parents that night and invited us kids to join them. My dad was pretty hard of hearing, so imagine a long dinner table with my dad at one end. One of the guys, Marty, was at the other end. And Marty said, ‘Now boys, I just want you all to know that the reason that we all are able to have dinner here tonight – the reason that we all came home alive – was because of your dad. I asked, ‘What did my father do,’ I mean these B17s flew in formation, ‘what did he do to provide protection?’ And Marty explained that my dad always flew toward the flack.  

There was some room between the bombers, and the Germans would aim their anti-aircraft at a

particular aircraft and when my dad would see the flack, he would turn toward it. The Germans would adjust, trying to guess where they should have shot, and they’d always guess wrong. My dad turned to me and said, ‘What did Marty just say?’ I said, ‘He said that in order to avoid getting shot you would fly toward the flack.’ And my dad said, ‘You know I used to do that.’ We all had a pretty good chuckle about it. He expected me to do the right thing. He was a very honorable, truthful, loyal guy.  

I remember in 1965, our student body was all sitting in the auditorium for some kind of program. One of my favorite friends, Charlie Lee, was sitting next to me. His dad was a major in the Army. He turned to me and said, ‘My dad says we should join the Reserves.’ And I said, ‘Why would we do that?’ And he said that as soon as we turned 18 then we could join the Reserves, and we could pick our jobs instead of just getting sent to Vietnam as an infantry guy. I didn’t really even know what Vietnam was. Charlie joined the 173rd Transportation Company in the Reserves and as soon as he joined his whole unit was called up and sent over. He’d been trained as a lifeguard at a swimming pool at the Officers Club and got to Vietnam as a convoy commander. He remains to this day one of the most organized guys I’ve ever met in my life.  Charlie stayed in the Reserves and was called to most of the battles after Vietnam. He achieved the rank of Command Sergeant Major before he retired.

I didn’t follow his instructions and I got drafted. I wanted to be an architect. I got accepted to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but my grandpa was on the Board of Trustees at a small college in Iowa and he wanted me to go there. So, I went, but I shouldn’t have gone. I left and couldn’t get back into UNL. I was selling men’s and boy’s clothes at a retail store for $1 an hour. I went to Wentworth Military Academy for 12 months and soon after, I got a letter welcoming me to the United States Army.  

I went to Fort Lewis for basic training. They put us all in a line and asked anyone who had been through ROTC to take a step forward. I did, and then they asked if anyone had gone to a military academy. Since I had, I took another step forward. And so, they made me the acting drill sergeant for one of the platoons. I thought, ‘holy crap.’ I was a little guy when I graduated from high school. I was almost 5’2 and 120 pounds. I think I could do about three pushups.  

I worked hard and pretty soon I was maxing the PT test. At the end of basic, they put an article in the Omaha World Herald that I was the top in my class and they promoted me to E3. I went to my senior drill sergeant and told him I was the best guy he had. He replied that I shouldn’t be bragging. I said, ‘Make no mistake, I’m not bragging. I’m saying if I’m the best you have you’re in big trouble.’ He said, ‘You don’t think the training was adequate.’ I said, ‘I’ll be lucky to make it down the stairs of the airplane in Vietnam without getting shot.’ We talked about needing better training and a week later I found myself as a candidate in the Infantry Officer Candidate School (OCS).  

After I applied for Ranger and Airborne school (which I didn’t get), they told me I had the aptitude to be a pilot. I thought it was pretty nifty with so many pilots in my family. I did my troop duty and then went to flight school in Texas. Then I spent four months at Fort Rucker learning to fly Hueys. I graduated from flight school as one of the top guys. I tell you that not to brag, but it was because I was more afraid of what could happen to me than anybody else, so I studied harder. It was more about being able to live than grades. I was picked to fly the Cobra, which was like going from a family minivan to a full-tilt Ferrari.   

I knew I was going to Vietnam. I had a month off, so I went home. Every girl I knew took me to the airport on my way to Vietnam. The whole time I was in helicopter school I knew they weren’t training me to stay home. It’s an interesting thing about getting ready to go. You know in one regard, I was scared. Another, was, with all this training, I really wanted it to be put to use.  

I’m not a fan of war. But I’d put everything into training that I could – for my own survival and for the survival of everyone I’d be associated with. I requested to be in the 1st Air Calvary Division. When I got to Vietnam I went to the 1st Air Calvary reception station. The smart thing would have been to ask which is the unit where nobody got shot at, but I had heard people talking about the legendary Blue Max Aerial Rocket Artillery Unit, and I requested that. I wasn’t disappointed. Maybe a little overworked, but I was in a unit with exceptional human beings.  

That experience and those guys stuck with me. Many of them are dear friends of mine. We only had 32 pilots in our unit. Just after I left, eight of them got killed. It was a weird way of thinking about those guys. And I think I had survivor’s guilt. Like I left too soon. By the time I was there about nine months, I had been the flight lead in most organized attacks. I told my commander, Major Larry McKay, I’m going to extend for six months. I felt like I belonged to this unit. Larry said great, company clerk said great, and the day after I was originally supposed to leave Vietnam – the day my year was up – the Department of the Army called up my commander and said, ‘Where is he? My commander said I was on a mission, that I’d extended for 6 months, and the Army said no. So, my commander sent out another Cobra to relieve me. He and I went to the 1st Calvary Division Headquarters and I was told I had to report to Fort Riley, Kansas. I left Vietnam and tried like crazy to go back. Those guys were that important to me.   

Our mission was this: They parked us within 5 minutes’ flight time of our guys in the field. We sat with a radio operator who would have contact with the guys on the ground. If the radio operator yelled, ‘Fire Mission,’ we’d run to the aircraft and have to be off the ground in less than two minutes. As soon as we took off, the guy would give us a heading to follow and then he’d read the mission. If there was a Medevac, part of our mission was security. We’d provide security for the medevac helicopter to come in. 

I flew 1,032 combat missions but there are a bunch that stand out, all for different reasons. When I first got there, I was a co-pilot. You strive to become an aircraft commander but when you start out you’re a co-pilot. It was an incursion in Cambodia. A command and control helicopter got shot down and landed on a road. Just an ocean of people came out of the treeline; enemy soldiers, running toward the Huey.  

Getting that would have been a prized treasure. Parts of war are treacherous, and parts are bizarre and humorous in a dark humor kind of way. We were shooting so many people. We weren’t very high off the ground and we were looking at them shooting at us. The devastation was just insane. And I just kept thinking, ‘What is wrong with these soldiers – they just keep coming. We’re taught to disperse.’ 

While all this shooting is going on, a two-and-a-half-ton truck is coming down the road. The truck stops and picks these guys up and they just keep going down the road to Vietnam. I think just the memory of all those enemy soldiers in the open … that will never go away. 

I had a co-pilot, Ernest Rickenbacker, who had a famous last name because of his great uncle, Eddie, the World War I flying ace and Medal of Honor recipient. I went to my commander and told him that Ernest needed his own aircraft – he was unbelievable. And my commander did it. We called Ernest “Fast Eddie” because he became an aircraft commander so quickly. He won a Silver Star for rescuing his co-pilot. But let me tell you about that mission, first. 

There was a Fire Support Base called Pace, right next to the Cambodian border where the Ho Chi Minh Trail came into Vietnam. For political reasons, the Army was supposed to evacuate this Fire Support Base. Left to its own devices, the Army never would have sacrificed it because of the strategic advantage. But, some guy wouldn’t go on patrol and he wrote his senator, so they shut it down for being “too dangerous.” Not the way you should fight a war, but anyway. We were supposed to take 12 helicopters to the Tay Ninh airport for a briefing and we’re being told about all this anti-aircraft all over the place and that nobody could get into Pace – it was too deadly.  

We were working out how to get these guys evacuated. The plan was that the next day, a Huey with a smoke generator would fly around and mask trucks coming up to pick up the guys and get them out of there. I don’t tell this story very often, so I might miss parts of it. But the bunch of us that were walking back were supposed to brief the other pilots. But then the airport came under a rocket attack.  

First thing we had to do was get our helicopters out. So, we did, and then we’re all supposed to land. As we’re coming in for final, the guys at Pace start yelling that they’re taking incoming. I said to my wingship, ‘Let’s take care of this.’ So, we went low-level up to the treetops until we got next to Pace. We popped up to about 1500 feet and we see 6 guys and a mortar tube on the other side of the border. The border right there was marked by a creek. Everything on the west side was Cambodia and the east was Vietnam.  

We always had to call to get clearance to fire, so I called. I think the guy I had to call was an Air Force guy, and I requested flying over the border to Cambodia in order to save the men at Pace who were taking mortars. He denied my request. I said, ‘We’re in hot pursuit,’ and he said, ‘Nobody’s crossing. Out.’ Just like that, and that was the last I heard from him.  

I pulled the nose of my helicopter up and launched about 6 rockets in the direction of the mortar tube. I shot across the border instead of crossing it. As luck would have it, the rockets fell right by the guys. I killed three and three hobbled off. We both dove at those three guys. My wingship, who was ahead of me, shot the other three guys. We took a hard left and and I called the guy back at Pace and told him something stupid like, ‘Send the Congressional Medal of Honor to Blue Max 1-2.’ And just as I’m saying this, I’m probably at 800 feet and there’s a loud kablamo and a big flame shoots out the left side of the nose of my helicopter. And my helicopter whips about 30 degrees to the left and then snaps back. I said to my wingship, Blue Max, 1-8, 1-2, we just got hit. And my wingship says Roger that 1-2, we just got hit.  

My co-pilot in the front seat is pointing down and just yelling really loud. He’s not on the intercom; he’s just pointing and yelling. And I look down and I see this big orange garbage can coming toward me and I thought, ‘The hell is that.’ It looked like a Star Wars kind of thing. It took a lot slower than you’d think a bullet would go and it went right past us. I’m thinking, ‘That’s a 23-millimeter antiaircraft cannon round tracer.’  

So, I was an infantry guy – What do you do in a near ambush? You assault. I flipped the cobra over and dove on the gun. None of my weapons would work. 

I pushed the rocket launch button, nothing.  

I pulled the trigger for the mini-gun, nothing.  

I pushed the button for the 40-millimeter grenade launcher, nothing.  

I called my wingship and said, ‘See where I’m going to hit the ground? Blow that up!’ I pulled up my nose and he hit where I was trying to and there was a huge secondary explosion from where we took out munitions. But then my cockpit filled with smoke.  

I thought this was really bad because the helicopter is made of magnesium and would just burn up. So, I was flying really low – a few feet off the ground – because I thought that when the thing goes up like a match, I’ll set it down and skid down the road and open the canopy and we’ll just jump out. But as we’re coming on final, the smoke cleared out and I landed. It was the weirdest thing. The 23 millimeter came up through the nose of the helicopter. It went through the heavy steel cartridge ejection shoot for the mini gun and just shredded that, and then it went through this wire loom that controlled all the weapons systems, and it was a big heavy bundle of wires. Because it was a tracer, it started the insulation on fire and that somehow got sucked into the cockpit. And that’s all that happened.  

But for my wingship commander, the 23 millimeter went through his engine compartment and took out the Environmental Control Unit and turned it into shrapnel and clipped a hydraulics line. You can fly a helicopter if you can’t shoot, but you can’t fly the Cobra without hydraulics.  

All this is a lead up to what happened the next day to fast Eddie Rickenbacker.  

The next morning, they told me they got my rockets fixed but they haven’t fixed my mini-gun or my 40-millimeter grenade launcher. My wingship can’t go. I shouldn’t go because I don’t have all my weapons.  

Somebody needs to be back up so that’s me.  

Rickenbacker’s job was to provide security for the smoke generating Huey to mask the extraction. Rickenbacker is flying about 400’. In Vietnam they would always tell us to fly below 50’ or above 1500’ because between 50’ and 1500’ a guy can shoot you down with a rifle. Rickenbacker’s helicopter gets hit about 15 times by a 51-caliber machine gun. His engine quits, his helicopter starts on fire and he crashes into the woods directly east of Fire Support Base Pace, across the road.  

He crashes, and the helicopter is leaning a bit to the right, sitting there on fire. Rickenbacker gets out and runs away from the helicopter. He turns around and he looks back and Mac, his co-pilot is still in there and he’s on fire, thrashing about. He’s not getting out. Understand that you don’t want to be standing in front of one of these things when it’s on fire because it’s got all these rockets on it ready to launch.  

Rickenbacker runs back over there, reaches into the fire, unbuckles Mac, picks him up bodily and yanks him out of the helicopter and puts him behind a dirt mound as the ammo starts to explode. So, all this is going on and the other 11 cobras that are there can only fly for about an hour and a half and then they’re out of fuel. I get the call that they’re out of fuel and that they’re heading back, and I have to go find Rickenbacker. I said, ‘What do you mean, find him?’  

Well, there was a patrol that left the support base to rescue the crew, but what they found was Mac laying there with a compound fracture of his femur and he’d broken his pelvis and he was badly burned. He had Rickenbacker’s pistol – Eddie had this really fancy revolver with a pearl handle, like a cowboy that he had brought with him. Rickenbacker had given it to Jim and told him he would go to the base to get help and have them come back for him.  

The patrol walks over and finds Mac and ask him where his pilot is. He points east. East is 80 miles to the ocean through jungle, which would be the absolute wrong thing to do. I’m flying in little circles and only my rockets work. The guy in the front seat and I are trying to see where the hell Rick is.  

The guy on the radio says, ‘We think our ground surveillance radar found your guy in some elephant grass across the road.’ So, my plan was to land in the Fire Support Base and my co-pilot would get out and I’d hover over there to where the elephant grass was and hopefully I’d find Rickenbacker. I’m on final to the Fire Support Base and one of the guys who flies the air ambulance, the Medevac, who’s a dear friend of ours, calls and says, ‘I’ve been listening to all this on the radio, and I’m coming up to get Rick. You just provide me with security.’ And so that’s what happened.  

We get Rick out and God Bless Him. He had yanked Mac right out of there. Fast Eddie Rickenbacker had a stellar military career after that.  

Eddie was a Harley guy. He drove his motorcycle to Omaha and stayed a couple days with my wife and me. This was eight years ago maybe. He drove clear across the country and back and when he got home, he checked into the hospital for problems with cancer from Agent Orange. He probably shouldn’t have made the trip and he didn’t even say anything to me about his health problems. We had a good visit.  

He was dead shortly after that.  

We went to his ceremony at Arlington and my wife said, ‘I don’t care if you knew who was getting buried here or not, you’d be crying just standing here.’  

It was very touching. Mac showed up and that was really touching to watch him say goodbye. I’m still in touch with him. He’s a great guy. You know he says that Rick gave him the rest of his life, which he did.  

That day sticks out in my memory because I’ve been reminded of it so many times over the years, having seen Mac and Fast Eddie. Even in the Arlington National Cemetery website eulogy for Ernest Rickenbacker said that I had given him the name Fast Eddie. So, if I’m proud of one thing, it’s that his son, Scott, who was also a helicopter pilot, had told the writer that.  

I don’t think you ever become immune to the missions.  You don’t become jaded, you become more professional with how to handle missions. And you learn when to break the rules, because sometimes it’s the right thing to do.  

Going from selling clothes for $1 an hour to flying around Vietnam in a million-and-a-half-dollar helicopter with all this elaborate training and going through all this craziness, I think I’m much better for it. I don’t know how I would have turned out otherwise, but it really helped me set my course and make good decisions. Between the training and the camaraderie with the guys in my unit and with my high school buddy Charlie Lee, it really prepared me for life. Not that life should be about killing, but the education experience, the leadership, well, it made me a better person. 

Being around those guys was strengthening. A year ago, I was in Salado, Texas. I met up with my commander, Jerry, who was commander the first part of my tour, and my co-pilot and another aircraft commander. Jerry told us that we’d all been hand selected by our commanders. You know we had to wait 47 years to hear that but that was wonderful to hear. I don’t think he was making it up.

It was a very special unit. Wings, the History of Aviation even did a little 10-minute thing on my unit. I don’t see the guys too often. I’m 70 now. Some of them have died.   

In 1993, the Army had a new Apache helicopter company. And the new commander’s name was Timothy Solms. And I know this because he called me and said, ‘The Army gave me a new Apache unit and because I’m the charter commander, I get to name it. I looked through Army history and of all the stood down helicopter units so that I could give the members of my unit a legacy. I picked your unit. We’re calling our guys ‘Blue Max’ in your honor and we’re going to have a black-tie dinner in Fayetteville, North Carolina and we’d like you to come out for it.’ 

He found about 15 of us, and we went out for this dinner. The guest speaker that night was General Bill Miller, and Larry McKay who was the commander the second half I was out there. McKay was just a wonderful guy. He had decided it had been too long since we had seen each other after that night, so he started hosting a dinner the night before Veterans Day every year in Washington DC. Then on Veterans Day, we’d have a sunrise service at the wall, and then go have breakfast with the 1st Calvary Division.  

Larry died in 2014. I don’t see the guys as a group like when Larry was doing those dinners, but we stay in touch and my crew chief even flew in from Alaska to see us. In 1995, I took my wife and daughter to a Vietnam helicopter pilots’ reunion and she saw that about 8 of these guys had Blue Max t-shirts on. And so, my wife went up to one of them, a guy named Jet Jackson. She asked if he knew me, and he replied, ‘No ma’am, he was just a legend when I got there.’ I pulled him aside and said, ‘Where did that come from? What do I owe you for that?’ And he said, ‘Just remember what to say to my wife when you meet her.’ 

Blue Max was truly a special group of guys. I think about them often. I guess I always will.”

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