MEET OUR VETERANS:
(C) Phil Smith: Journalist
(R) Mike Dobson (Door Gunner)
U.S. Navy “Seawolves” – Vietnam
“I would compare what we did in the “Seawolves,” to Chennault’s Flying Tigers in World War II. There was no difference. We were all volunteers. We all started out with JUNK and we got the job done.” Tom Crull
“In comes one of these Seals, he is filthy, dirty and had been running in the jungle, sweat, makeup, the whole thing. He asked, Who the hell was shooting the 50-calibre last night? I thought I was going to get my butt kicked.” Mike Dobson
“The Mekong Delta is a vast, swampy system of more than 2,500 miles of rivers, canals, and streams covering the southern quarter of what was, before 1975, the Republic of South Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, whoever controlled the waterways controlled the area, and in 1965 communist forces did; the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) funneled troops and supplies around with near impunity.
The enemy fought back fiercely with armed junks and ambushes sprung from concealed positions ashore. To survive, the boat crews and special forces teams would need close air support, and the aircraft best suited for the job were dedicated helicopter gunships. There was just one problem: The Navy didn’t fly gunships.
In early 1966, Army UH-1B Huey gunships were temporarily assigned to a dock-landing ship, the USS Belle Grove, to support Operation Game Warden. The Army aviator’s tenure on the ship was only about five months, but the men used the time to develop many of the tactics later used by the Navy, and gave their contingent a nickname: the Sea Wolves (later compressed to one word: Seawolves). When the Army left, the Navy kept eight of their helicopters—and their nickname.” SOURCE: Robert Bernier – Air & Space Magazine, April 2016.
“The story of the HA(L)-3 Seawolves, the most decorated squadron in the Vietnam War and Naval Aviation History.” Source: “Scramble the Seawolves“ / PBS Documentary
This is the story of two Navy Seawolves, Captain and UH-1B Navy Pilot Tom Crull, (DET-3) and AE-2 Doorgunner, Mike Dobson, (DET-1).
The interview took place on June 30th, 2021 in the home of Tom Crull.
Tom Crull was born in St. Louis, and raised in Delray Beach Florida. He is a graduate of University of Southern Mississippi, with a BS in Business.
Crull Enlisted in 1966 at Willow Grove NAS where he was working for Armstrong Cork in sales.
He went through the Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, commissioned an Ensign and went through Primary Flight training at Naval Air Station, Sauffley Field, on T34’s.
Tom then went through basic at Whiting Field in T28’ and carrier qualified in the T28 aboard the USS Lexington. He then went to Elliyson Field to fly helicopters, TH13M and UH34 and received his wings on June 10, 1967.
Tom went to Ft. Benning Georgia to transition into Huey Gunships, UH-I’s and assigned to survival school in Coronado Amphibious base then to SERE training at Warner Springs.
Tom was sent to HAL-3 and assigned to Vinh Long AAF where his squadron were overrun during the TET Offensive of 1968.
After a 12-month tour he was assigned to HC3 to fly UH46 Helicopters.
Crull went to the Tonkin Gulf on board the USS Camden AOE2 with two H46’s doing vertical replenishment at sea.
Tom became Squadron Natops Officer and Senior Test pilot. He left active duty in 1971 and moved to Dallas, Texas. Tom stayed in the Navy Reserves and retired after 29 years as an 06 Navy Captain.
Tom Crull: “After we finished our last flight, there were several of us in one room, we were told about a new squadron forming in Vietnam, called the “Navy SEAWOLVES.” We asked them, what do they do?
The answer, “Well, they fly and support the Navy Seals and the PBR Boats over there.” “I thought that would be kind of neat to fly over Vietnam in a Huey, so I volunteered. I ended up in the Seawolves. I was not married at the time and I thought, what have I gotten myself into? They told us if we volunteered for this squadron, it would count as two (2) years of arduous Sea Duty, from a one-month tour. I thought, at the time, that was a good deal. I am definitely volunteering for that. As it turned out, that wasn’t the truth. Thirty-nine of us in that room ended up going to Helicopter School. I got picked,” laughed Tom.
GOING THRU SERE: (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School)
“After we accepted and were going to Vietnam, we went thru survival training, how to catch fish and all this stuff. Then they bused us up to Warner Springs in the heat of the summer, perfect training for Vietnam. Then we were sent to SERE survival training. I learned to NEVER go thru it once the Navy Seals had gone thru it because they had taken over the entire camp and captured all the people in it. They were not happy campers so they took it out on us. I found out how people react under a tremendous amount of stress during a 24-hour period. I saw a couple of guys confess, knowing they are not going to kill you. I learned a lot about human nature. It taught you how to survive, it was good.”
BEING A PILOT IN THE NAVY:
“I wasn’t even thinking about a career, all I wanted to do was fly in the Navy. When you are 23-24 years old you don’t think too far in the future. You are just thinking about the nearest bar.
I originally went into the Navy to fly A-1 Skyraiders, attack airplanes. When I was thinking about the Seawolves, I thought, well, that is an attack helicopter. That appealed to me and I really wanted to be in the thick of it. I had a brother on Guadalcanal in WWII, a brother in the Supply Corp in the Navy in the Atlantic, WWII, so I wanted to do my part.
I ended up in Vietnam, two-week orientation in the field and went to the Bien Long Army Airfield Base, assigned to DET-3. I felt fortunate I was on a base and could walk around, go to a club or in town. I couldn’t do that on an LST. We had a lot of action off the Co Chin River. When I wasn’t getting my hours in as a Junior Officer in the Navy I would fly on my days off with the Army. I learned a lot from those guys.
November 1967: Arrival and The Mission
“I got into Vietnam in November 1967 and stayed until November 1968. There was a lot of action going on and was a time of a lot of buildup going on in Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was very active and a lot going on down in the south. We flew a lot of patrols and the Seals were very active. We were getting scrambled for the Seals and the PBR boats.
Our Mission was varied. If we had someone shot down we would go and make a rescue. We didn’t hesitate. If someone was in trouble, we scrambled. We didn’t care if it was Army, Air Force, Marine, we didn’t care, we were there to help, including medivacs. In any type of weather.”
MIKE DOBSON BIO:
Mike Dobson was an Eagle Scout and graduated in a class of 60 in 1967 from Gowrie, Iowa. At 17, he graduated, and was already in the Navy, having been sworn in mid-April of his senior year — 4 months later, Mike turned 18, and was on his way to Great Lakes for Boot Camp.
While in Boot Camp, Mike was picked to be on the Drill Team, which is still today very similar to the Marine silent drill team. During his time at Great Lakes, he participated in four graduation ceremonies. At that time, Great Lakes was graduating 1500 to 2000 sailors every Friday. During the “career counseling session,” he stuck firmly to his ground, Mike wanted to be an Aircraft Electricians Mate. When the counselor asked what he wanted as second choice, again, he said Aviation Electricians Mate — he said I had to make a second choice, he refused saying that he had the scores and anything else would be a screwing —– I guess he got lucky, or impressed them — Mike Got AE school.
Coming out of AE school in Jacksonville, Fla. in June of 68 Dobson had orders to China Lake, California, where they had 31 aircraft (22 different types) to work on and keep ready for testing the ordinance that China Lake developed and still does today. He was finishing his year in China Lake, due for orders, and dreading being sent to a carrier next. About that time, in the spring of 1969, Lt. James Walker reported to China Lake. At the time he was assigned to VX-5 which was a testing squadron at the base. Mike found himself standing tall at quarters for an award ceremony for Lt. Walker, not knowing that his life was about to change.
Lt. Walker was awarded the Navy Cross during that ceremony and Mike was suddenly aware that he was a veteran of the “Seawolves,” a Navy Attack Light Helicopter gunship squadron located in Vietnam, and there were enlisted DOOR GUNNERS there!! He knew where he wanted to go next, and soon conned his way onto a hospital flight to San Diego where he made a direct appeal in the office called Epdopac. That is where all west coast enlisted orders are generated. He was due for orders. “I turned in a “termination of shore duty chit,” said Mike. “There were three other sailors with me there in San Diego.” When the clerk looked at Mike and asked, “What do you want?” He told the personnel man, “I want to be a doorgunner in Vietnam”… “You want THAT?” he asked ….. I said “you bet, I want to be a doorgunner,” said Mike. You GOT IT !” he said. Four days later the orders came through and Mike was on my way to the five months of training before departing the States for Vietnam. Mike ended up with HA(L)3.
MIKE DOBSON: “One of my Grandfathers was WW I, all my uncles were in the service and all my male cousins went into the service. I had something to live up to. I knew one day, I would have to look in the mirror. I wanted to be proud of the guy looking back,” said Mike proudly.
Mike, like Tom, ended up doing small arms training, survival swimming, hand to hand combat training, first aid, and Vietnam indoctrination. From there he was sent to Fort Rucker for doorgunner training. “We had six sailors and they tried to put us in Mechanic School. We resisted and told them we were there for gunners class. We were supposed to be there two weeks. One of the 2nd class sailors ended calling up the Pentagon. We were given verbal orders to transit straight to San Diego. We drove back to the west coast in two days. NEVER went thru one day of doorgunner school,” laughed Mike. “Two days later we had to go thru a “Board of Inquiry,” and we got grilled. They tried to get what is called, a “Page13” at the end, which basically stated we didn’t want flight duty. We told them we weren’t signing a page 13, our goal of door gunner was the same, the Army just wouldn’t put us in the school. I then was sent to Fort Eustis and go thru the electrical school with the Army. It was a good school. I was then sent to Little Creek for “SERE” training. Tom had his in the summer, I had mine in the middle of winter. We did pushups in the frozen streams. I was never sorry for having gone thru SERE, but NOBODY wants to go thru it again,” said Mike. “The best part of SERE was, “I AIN’T GETTING CAPTURED,” laughed Mike. We quickly found out the “Aggressors” weren’t going by the rules, so we altered our tactics also.
The other gunners and I never discussed our reason for being in Vietnam. The doorgunners were 100% purely VOLUNTEERS. They could not order us to be a doorgunner. We all could have stayed on base working maintenance and working on the helicopters. There was a group of us there that just wanted to be doorgunners. We also did the maintenance on those helicopters until they got their inspections for their 100-hour services. We actually did “double duty” working and then flying in them.
I arrived in Viet Nam on the 10th of May 1970, and would immediately start maintaining the B model UH-1s that I would soon be crewing. Three weeks later, I was told I was going to Detachment 1. I already knew that Det 1 had a reputation for being in the thick of it. Perfect! I was about to enter the final phase of a period of service that would change me for the rest of my life.
Det 1 was located at a Place called “Seafloat” in the southernmost area of the Mekong Delta. It took about three weeks to earn my seat and be qualified to ride as a full-fledged gunner. Det 1 was supporting SEALS and the Riverine Forces and were busy on a daily basis flying night and day in support of their missions. Then we went out on our own and looked for trouble.
All forces in the area , including outposts and Vietnamese Army Forces were dependent on us to be on quick response when they called for help.
We could be airborne in 2 to 3 minutes from the time the call “Scramble the Seawolves” was made. To say this was an adrenaline filled time of life would be an understatement. We were adrenaline junkies and would do anything for those who needed us . We never turned down a call, no matter how dark, or what the weather was, if they needed us, and we had a reputation for being there, no matter what —- we never broke the faith. I stayed on Det 1 till late April 1971, flying 850 combat missions, and earning 35 Air Medals, 3 single action Air medals, and numerous other awards. By May 9th, I had returned to the states, and was discharged from the Navy.”
The UH-1Bs and their Capabilities:
TOM: “The Huey’s were the first “Turbine fired” helicopters for the Army. It revolutionized everything with extra power, more reliability, it was just a great helicopter. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt was very instrumental and getting the Seawolves up and running in Vietnam. He was “Brown Water Navy,” and he knew the Army could not give the Navy the adequate support they needed to the PBR boats or the Navy Seals. He said, “We need Navy pilots flying Huey’s because they were more in tune of the operations of the PBR boats, the Navy Seal Teams, and they were instrument rated.
Bell Helicopter built a very simple but very very rugged helicopter. It was easy from a systems standpoint to learn, stable and could take tremendous abuse. It was very slow at about 110 knots but it revolutionized Vietnam in how many troops it could carry. The “Gunships” were limited to about 80 knots and that is what we usually flew them at. Most of the Bell Helicopter “LIMITATIONS ON WEIGHT” were mostly disregarded,” laughed Mike and Tom.
“I flew one of the Army’s “HOG” helicopters and is just ridiculously overweight. It wouldn’t hover, you just banged it out on the skids and the doorgunners would get back in and bang it down the runway until you got what is called “Translation of Lift,” which is 20 knots and then you got more airflow over the rotor system and then you would get the lift which required less power. The UH-1B’s were not very powerful as the other helicopters the Army had but the UH-1B had a great rotor blade system. We usually flew it “over gross.”. At one point if we ever lost an engine it would never “autorotate.” You would become a free-falling object,” he laughed.
SEALORDS AND THE SEAWOLVES:
2. GUNSHIPS (UH1’B) mostly to protect those Navy Seals, PBR’s, LST and backup and patrol in the Delta. (Navy authorized 33 Seawolf Gunships)
“The Sealord’s, also known as “the Slick,” were the Huey’s that inserted and picked up the troops from the battle zones. They were also used for medivacs.
NOTE: HA(L) – 3 was authorized 33 gunships and 11 slicks but they rarely, if ever, had those numbers. The Army supplied HAL-3 with B, and later C model, gunships at a level equivalent to their own units. If Army units were operating with 75% of their authorized aircraft strength HAL-3 would have around 25 Army UH-1B/C aircraft which was a pretty common number for us. Towards the end of 1971 and the first couple of months of 1972, just prior to stand-down, I think HAL-3 may have actually had 33 UH-1B/C gunships. When HAL-3 would receive C model aircraft they would fly them 100 hours and then perform an engine change to I think a T53L -13 engine which converted the aircraft to a M or “Mike” model. This was a huge improvement. The C model had the newer 540 rotor system and larger fuel tank and, with the larger engine, the Mike model was vastly superior to the B Model. It was still limited to 9,500 pounds maximum gross weight and 95 knots with external stores, but it had great “Legs” and on-station time. Source: www.seawolf.org
TOM CONTINUES: “The Gunships were smaller, had power, but, they had all the rockets the guns and the grenade launchers. There was a major difference in the two. The gunships were slower because they had all that drag and were very heavy.
We took off with a full load of ammo and rockets. We were almost maxed gross weight and sometimes over it. When you took off you would pull it about two (2) inches off the ground. If you could hover, you knew you could make it. I felt if I could get it out to the PSP runway, I could get it airborne. We would just “bounce it” off the ground. I was extremely lucky in Vietnam and the Lord watched over me the whole time and I never got into a situation where we crashed in a helicopter.
We got shot at on a daily basis. You can hear the “pop” from an AK-47 from the ground. Doorgunners would throw out “smokes,” where they think it came from. They have a very distinct sound to it. Of course, they don’t have tracers. I carried an AK-47 because the M16s we had early on were just garbage. We had a 37mm shot at us on the Cambodian border and that was a full auto-rotation down to the tree lines and we needed to get out of there as fast as we could. We got hit by a 51-mm one time and it shakes you pretty bad. It went thru the radios and we were extremely lucky.”
ARMY GAVE US THEIR CLUNKERS:
“We got “CRAP” helicopters from the Army,” laughed Tom. “Obviously they weren’t going to give you their best for obvious reasons. We outsmarted the Army, due to Navy maintenance and guys like Mike Dobson. When the Army got the choppers back from the Seawolves, they got em back in better shape, than when they gave them to us. When we got the helicopters from the Army there were a lot of small things wrong with them and our guys would go in there and fix it. The Navy maintenance was superb. However, our relationship with the Army at Bien Long was just superb. If a Seawolf got in trouble the Army would descend on them like a “pack of rats,” and vice versa. It was just a good situation.
All the pilots I flew with over there were DAMN good pilots. Some were better than others and maybe some should never have been flying. We weeded them out pretty quick and they went back to administrative jobs. You could really weed out the bad pilots when we flew at night. Our Navy pilots were fully “instrument rated,” although the Huey was not a good instrument bird. The Navy wisely put in radar altimeters. We could tell how far above the ground we were. I remember going in at 500-foot, overcast and down the river, on an old single engine helicopter. What went thru your mind was, when is this engine going to quit? How am I going to auto rotate. Well, you had that radar altimeter. It was good and at least it gave you a chance to survive. The Navy pilots were good instrument pilots. We did a lot of practice and flew at night all the time.”
SUPPLY CHAIN AND MAINTENANCE:
“There was a priority on parts and getting supplies for the helicopters were a real problem. The Army supply system at Bien Long was really slick. You would just go in and say, hey we need these parts. They would not ask any questions and gave you the part. The Navy had you sign chits and you can’t do this because you didn’t have priority. We would “scrounge and steal” parts. We got the parts and we flew helicopters that shouldn’t have been flown. We had structure cracks over the windscreen of the cockpit. We called the Bell tech rep, he said you can’t fly it, that is structural damage. We kept flying, those Huey’s were tough. There were some times that maybe altered their operations from the PBR’s or Seals and were delayed until we were back up and running. We were key to those guys when they got into trouble. From our Lieutenant Junior Grades to the Ensign levels we did not care too much about “chain of command,” all we wanted to do was fly.”
NOTE: “Tom Crull of Dallas, Texas, was one of the co-pilots under Wes Weseleskey for eight of 12 months he was in Vietnam. Weseleskey said, “Crull’s commitment to serving his country really stood out so he took Crull under his wing — for which Crull is grateful.” “He deserved the medal in my opinion,” Crull says. “He saved another American. That is what we are supposed to do. I won’t forget the day. That was a part of war.” From the Book TRIUMPHANT WARRIOR by Peter D. Shay
TOM: “He was all for the enlisted and he wanted to fly with his doorgunner just to learn what they were going thru. He was all for the Junior Officers, (JO’s) and would put you in the Aircraft Commanders seat just to get you trained faster and get the experience. We loved him for that. Other pilots would have none of it and say just sit in the seat and be my co-pilot, don’t touch anything and do as I say. Many of us said, to heck with this, and would go over and fly with the Army. I upgraded to Aircraft Commander quickly because I flew so many hours with the Army. It wasn’t unusual for those guys to fly 14-hours in one day.
Wes was in there for about six-months before I got over there. He came from the A-1 Skyraiders, which was the famous attack-prop plane in Vietnam. He was a go getter, he knew how to attack. He loved the JO’s and took care of the enlisted people. He was “The man” for getting us parts out in the field and for getting us good helicopters out of Bien Tau, it was Weseleskey. He paid for it, dearly. His motivation was the war, why we were sent over there for, and our mission. To this day, I have nothing but the highest respect for him. He rubbed a lot of people wrong and there were people in our squadron who didn’t like him. I flew with him as his co-pilot, his wingman and later as fire-team lead and I owed it all to Weseleskey and his training. He was put in for the “Medal of Honor” by the Army and some of our people downgraded it to a “Navy Cross,” and as of 2021 I am still fighting for his upgrade for that Medal of Honor. What he did in Vietnam was just unbelievable. Thank God for Wes because he saved our whole Detachment. He was one of the best trainers I have ever seen”
WORKING WITH OTHER CREW MEMBERS:
TOM: “All our crew were extremely, extremely tight. There was no Mr. Crull or this or that. It was hey Wilson or doorgunner or they would call me “Tomcat,” or something like that. I even had a nickname “Mudball,” but that is another story in itself. Once we got off the mission it was Mr. Crull and back to the Navy. But, with the crew, we were tight nit and every person had to do his duty and if they didn’t you had a problem.”
MIKE: “Almost without fail the Junior Pilots will say their relationships with the enlisted in HAL-3 is what set the course for the rest of their career. They learned that the enlisted men were not just to be bossed around, we earned their respect. As a result, they took care of the enlisted guys.”
Tom: “One night, the PBR boats were in bad trouble and getting shot up pretty bad. We got scrambled down there at night. One of the newer doorgunners forgot to put the contacts on the rockets. I heard over the mic, Mr. Crull, we didn’t get the contacts on. We slowed down to 50 knots and told one of the guys to hold onto the doorgunners belt to get out there and put the contacts on. That was one scared kid.
We listened to our doorgunners. They were good. They would call out targets to you or they saw something we didn’t. We would listen to them. If something was not right, everybody on that crew had the authority to say, STOP doing this. It was ALL teamwork.”
MIKE: “Our flight tactics were different than the Armies. Prime time for the PBR and Navy Seals was at night. There was an evolution from the time Tom got to the Seawolves and when I got there in 1971. When I got there, we had the “mini guns” on the pylons for the co-pilot to shoot. They still had the 7-shot “rocket pods.” We were still shooting the “FREE Gun M-60’s,” which we find out later, NONE of the other forces were shooting free gun (unmounted vs fixed-mounted). They had bags on the side to catch the ammo. I don’t think any of the Army had 50-cals on them. And when Tom was there, certainly no door mini guns.
When I got there, we had dibs on all the artillery. In the beginning, the 50’s had such a terrible recoil they were tearing up the bottom of the helicopters. They tried to bolt them down to the deck and that just didn’t work. We had a “hard mount” on the pylon and that worked and it was not affecting the airframe. Before, the Army would take off their machine-guns and return them to the Armory. The next day, that Army gunner would come back and pick up “a machine gun,” that had been worked on that night.
We did our own armor stuff. We learned to modify them and turned them into “racecars.” The stock rounds for an M-60 was around 450-rounds a minute. We had some that were doubling that. The spring guide in the op rod looked like a large nail. We put a firing pin on it at first, then put another spring on top of it. it made more compression on the spring. It also effected the trigger spring, it would do a “runaway.” So, we had to beef up the trigger mechanism that would make it stop when you let go of the trigger. We would drill out the “pistons.” We would take the bolts apart and add coils of spring in both the extractor and injector. There were three-and one-hole receivers. The one-hole receiver ejected differently. It would eject back almost parallel to the receiver. The three-holer ejected straight away and caused “spin back,” jams. We would get drills and files and turn them into one-holers. There were “hydraulic buffers” which were like a piston inside the receiver and there were “mechanical buffers.” The mechanical buffers were faster and harder to get. There were wafers “like lifesavers” inside the mechanical buffers, we added dimes between the wafers. When we were done modifying, those things “HOWLED!!.” Our guys were always up to trying new things. We even tried “twin-60s, which were on a “hard mount.”
Most doorgunners were in the 160-lb or less category, which were most of the 18-20-year-old kids. When I went over I was 185 when I got back I weighed 165. You had to change the way we shot. You are leaning into this machine gun and it jammed you almost fell out of the helicopter. Some of the guys wore a “MONKEY BELT.” Some of us HATED wearing the monkey belt and we wouldn’t wear them. They were a 2” belt, about 6 feet long, I hated to wear the belts, they got in the way, so I seldom wore one.
In the Army, the doorgunner was always on one side. We had two (2) gunners and sometimes we would shoot two gunners out the same door. Side-by-side and really laying some lead. The Army, with the “fixed guns,” couldn’t do that.
On the maintenance side, the Navy guys had a training background. In the Air Crew, you first had to have a trade. We were mechanics, ordinance men, electricians, metalsmiths and electronics. Our detachments were made up of a variety of those trades. We could maintain those helicopters on site. If we needed a part, we would radio it over and they got it to us. No questions asked. Some of the LST had machinery and occasionally we could modify something that was hard to get. Our hardest acquisition was M-60 parts. When parts got scarce it was squadron wide. The op rods, bolts, and sometime the barrels were the major parts to get.
We got our parts from the Navy. However, when an Army helicopter came in we would “swoop” in and see what parts they had we could use. The Army was not trained to work on those machine guns on site for the helicopters. We tore ours apart in flight. We begged, borrowed and “Cumshawed” parts when needed,” laughed Mike.
VINH LONG ARMY AIRFIELD:
Tom: “We were right on the Co Chien River and was a very a very busy river and a hot island for the Viet Cong. We had Navy Seals based out of Vinh Long. We flew a lot of night patrols because that was when the Viet Cong was so active. We got mortared all the time. It got to be a joke until one of our bunkers got bombed, then it was no longer a joke. The Choppers and the PBR boats were critical to our missions. Vinh Long is a very nice city. All their commerce is along the rivers and canals. Our PBR guys had nowhere to go when they got ambushed sometimes. Our operations were about two-clicks on either side of the river, supposedly and all the way up to the Cambodian Border. We inserted Team Leader-6 up into the Seven-Mountains where he dressed as a Viet Cong. The B-52’s has bombed the seven-mountains and found out the Viet Cong had a huge arms factory there.”
SEAWOLF 2-TEAM HELICOPTERS: (LEAD AND TRAIL CHOPPERS)
Tom: “Our patrols had 2-team helicopters which were your fire-teams. The fire-team leaders or the “Lead Helicopters,” are responsible to navigate to where the target is or where you are patrolling for that day. He is the one who calls the shots and tells everybody what to do. The “Wingman,” or “Trail Helicopter,” stays quite a ways back for obvious reason. The Wingman is always doing “S” turns so he is not a target back and forth behind the fire-team leader.
The object of the fire-team is to “Daisy-Chain” or an “Oval-Pattern,” where you roll in on your strike and as you pull right or left you always tell them which way you are going to break. When you pull to the right, away from it, the wingman starts to shoot his rockets and his doorgunner is shooting forward to the target. The fire-team leader, as he is going back to altitude at 800-1000 feet to start the run again, his doorgunner is shooting back out of the helicopter and covering the wingman and vice versa. We always had fire put down to protect the other helicopter.
At night, it was a different situation. At night “Tracers” show up. The “Lead” helicopter always flew with his head collision light on and his port and starboard light. The “wingman” was flacked out. So, as soon as someone shot at that “lead” helicopter, then we threw the firepower at them. It was extremely dangerous and took a lot of discipline at night. On a pitch-black night with no horizon it was tough as a pilot. Once you are a “fire team” leader you stay the leader and I had learn from Weseleskey, there were several co-pilots I liked. I loved flying with Dick Barr and Randy Miller. They were superb co-pilots. When I knew they had the confidence I would put them over there in my seat. Wes did that same with me. They learned to get used to shooting the rocket sight, which in my opinion, was one of the worthless things to happen to a helicopter. They would get use to using the rocket sights, we usually just put them off to the side. We would just roll it on the target, we would see where the white phosphorus rocket would hit, then we would just take a grease pencil and put an X there. That was your sight, it was right there on your windscreen. Like the doorgunners, we soon learned the “tricks of the trade.”
I would compare with what we did in the Seawolves, to Chennault’s Flying Tigers in World War II. There was no difference. We were all volunteers. We all started out with JUNK and we got the job done,” Tom said proudly. “There was a country that asked us to help them. We went over there as volunteers, as specialists working with Seals and PBR boats. We did our job without the best equipment in the world. We got the job done.”
THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT:
Tom: “In the fire team, the Rules of Engagement were “KILL OR BE KILLED.” Obviously you don’t shoot civilians, you don’t want to kill innocents. There were incidents in Vietnam where people were shot that shouldn’t have been shot. It is unfortunate, that is war.
We were on patrol once going up the Koh Chien River and I was “fireteam” lead that day. I checked in with the sector and this Air Force Controller said they had some “Hardcore” NVA and we have caught them out in the open. They said they had no one to go in there, could we fly in there? I said, I am sorry but that is out of our area of responsibility. Then I said, incidentally, I need a radio check and changed to another frequency. We got the coordinates and it was a “turkey shoot.” It is unfortunate you have to do that, but we did. We are all there for the war effort.”
COMMUNICATION WITH THE DOORGUNNERS:
Tom: “The doorgunner has a 180-degree field of vision, the pilots are more fixated. They can see stuff we can’t. Some of these guys could look down and see if “Cong” had gone thru, or maybe that a “Sampan” doesn’t look right. Maybe it was setting too low in the water, and had something slung underneath it. Those guys were good. We depended heavily on them for that. You fly with these maps and there are thousands of tributaries down there, during the monsoon it was impossible. A lot of the doorgunners were experienced and if they knew the area, it really helped the pilots. Now and they may tell us, hey can you be a little smoother on those pedals? We had to be smooth too, because these guys are hanging out there in the windscreen. If you don’t keep that ball centered, they will all of a sudden get a blast of wind.” The more you work with each other, the better feel you had for each other, you almost “think” like each other’s sometimes? “We did and that was incredible,” said Tom.
Phil: “There were nine (9) Seawolf Detachments in Vietnam. Tom was in Det-3 a few years earlier and 50-miles North, before Mike arrived in 1971. By the time Mike got there, Tom’s Detachment (DET-3) had moved out.
Mike, you flew out of Det-1, tell me a little about your neighborhood.”
Mike: “I did not realize it until now that Tom was limited to either side of the River, which was one of the tributaries of the Mekong. We, on the other hand, had an entire area of operations. Our area was much different than Toms. I was down with Det-1 on the southernmost point of Vietnam. We covered the Gulf of Thailand on one side and the South China Sea on the other. We saw both of them on any given day. When I first got there, we were thirteen (13) barges tied up in the center of the river. It was called the “Seafloat.”
We had LST off the shore and it would have the “off-duty” crew on it. The “on duty” crew would be on the float itself. Both, the Seafloat and the LST only handled two (2) helicopters at a time. The LSTs job was to support us. They had fuel and ammunition. I was on Seafloat for three (3) months before “Solid Anchor” was built on shore and we moved there. It was right next to Seafloat.
There were no roads only fifty (50) miles of swamp and all these little tributaries. There was no Army down there, Vietnamese Army, occasionally. It was not an area for Army maneuvers. It was SEAL and Riverboat territory. We had some rice paddy areas, and a lot of Mekong jungle or “triple canopy” jungle called the U Minh Forest. It was made up of three (3) layers of vegetation and made it very difficult to see thru it. We found entire cities in that jungle. There was defoliation (Agent Orange) that was used down there and was quite effective.
I developed this trick when I was stationed with Det-1. I flashback to days when I was Pheasant hunting in Iowa. They used corn pickers and not combines back in the day. So, there were these “knocked over” cornstalks. I learned that, at certain speeds driving down the road and if I fixed my eyes looking out at that field, all of the cornstalks would vanish. I could see a rooster standing up in the middle of the snow. I took that same technique and adapted it to Vietnam. I could look within the jungle, I could see a small flicker or a hooch, and we flew with pins pulled on smoke grenades. We would pop it and the pilots would use that smoke grenade as a reference and we would come back and investigate.
We were even more fine-tuned than when Tom was there. The pilots and co-pilots would always say before they turned, we are coming right or we are coming left. That is all they had to do, was say that. Even if we weren’t belted in. We instantly shifted our balance. There was no danger of being thrown out. We joked with the pilots and co-pilots that if they made their call, we would make sure there were NO blisters on their neck. (meaning some of the spent shells would indiscriminately fly toward the front of the helicopter.). Evolution of Acceptance and a desire not to screw up,” said Mike.
“You didn’t want to screw up, that was the worst thing. When I was there, the introduction of the Trawlers bringing in arms and of course a hotbed of Vietcong (VC). We became so familiar with the area we could pick out these Sampans on the banks of the canal that hadn’t been there the day before. We would key on this type of thing and take care of the problem. Some of them would have motors on them and have this long shaft and a prop where they could maneuver up these canals. If we caught one of them we would do just a short burst and try and break the gas tank on it. Then light em off with a tracer. That was one of our fun things.
Det-6 was above us but on the Thailand side. Det-3 was about 50-miles north of us. There were times when we needed each other’s help. At times we were short of helicopters because of maintenance problems or damage and we would team up with each other. We didn’t fly with set crews like Tom did. We rotated and thought that was a good thing because everybody knew the same program. When I got there, we had certain procedures. Hypothetically we were 24-on and 24-off. Everybody would man-up and do the daily maintenance. The officer-pilots would swap and the gunners would swap. The pilots were normally on 6-month Dets. There would be some indoctrination into the squadron before they were sent out. Some would go out with the Sealord’s to get some time with the Hueys and get some area familiarization. Some were Ensigns when they arrived and quickly became Junior Grades (JGs).”
SEEK AND PEEKS:
Mike: “We were always out to find something to do. The doorgunners were not under the same regiment as the pilots were. The pilots had twelve (12) months and they were gone and could not return. The gunners and maintenance guys could extend six (6) months at a time and they could keep extending. I flew with two (2) gunners, one was an Aviation Electronics Technician (AT) and the other an Aviation Jet Mechanic (ADJ). They had gone from Boot Camp to A-School and then their pre-training to go to HA(L)3 and they kept extending in HA(L)3. The ONLY duty station they knew was as a doorgunner in HA(L3. They were eventually given a year early-out.
Our missions were about 50/50-night vs day. The riverboats couldn’t be everywhere. We were always out there looking for trouble. There was just this “maze” of canals and, of course, a sampan could go up a canal where a riverboat couldn’t.
We came up with a “Night Observation Device,” (NOD). This was first generation of “night scopes,” for these guys to be able to see at night. You needed some kind of light source, even moonlight was perfect. They had this lens on them about 16-inches across and 2 ½ feet long, fixed on a post mount. Only one-person could use it and was monocular (one eye). You could see a campfire in the jungle that you couldn’t see otherwise. That made it tough on the bad guys. We caught a lot of traffic at night and they didn’t know we could see them. The bad part of that is only one of the eight guys, a gunner, could see them. If we had a 50-calibre, or a minigun, in that lead, typically the left doorgunner used the night scope. Otherwise there wasn’t room enough. If, we spotted something, we could then tell the pilot we got something at a 9’o’clock roll.”
WORKING WITH PILOTS AS A TEAM:
Mike: “There was rank in our Detachment, but sir, salute was not part of it. They were very conscious that the gunners usually had a whole lot more experience. They were seeking their guidance and approval and acceptance into the Detachment. There were many face to face conversations, more of a man-to-man than an enlisted man to an officer type things. Your Det Officer In Charger (OinC) was on a different platform. He was a Senior Officer who was there to get his ticket punched and get a couple of combat awards and move on. The JGs were the ones on site that made the immediate decisions and the ones who were really the leaders. The leaders were making decisions way above their pay grades and the responsibilities they were undertaking. It was amazing.
When Tom got there the protocol was you never leave your wingman. Even though we had a team with two (2) helicopters and flew as a fireteams. IF you had a Seal Team out there in trouble, we flew. Even if it was with one (1) helicopter. When I was there we were in an evolution period that when we flew two (2) as a team we would get to a point of fuel levels and send one chopper back and rotate each other back and forth to the fuel, ammunition reload. We always had one (1) helicopter over the Seals at all times. The Trail ship would become the Fireteam leader in our scenario. Your mission is if you had guys on the ground, and needed help, we stayed and helped. It was NEVER questioned. That was protocol for us.”
WHAT WAS THE RULE OF ENGAGEMENT FOR GUNNERS:
Mike: “We had a lot “FREER” fire zone than Tom did. We usually had a fire zone clearance and were sometimes many miles away. Anything we saw was bad, probably. We had a situation one time when “We had em.” The twenty-question dialog started. Are they running? Are they carrying arms? These bad guys were getting closer to the jungle. Tomorrow, they may get us. The gunner would say, “Taking Fire,” and that changed the whole dialog right there. There is always time for “second guessers sitting in Saigon,” who have never seen it. Out where we were, you went with your gut feelings, and stuck with our decisions. Changing your mind in the middle of a situation, normally wasn’t good.
We were depended upon to be there and they trusted us to be there. I don’t know if it was ever discussed, but we knew, the priority was to get them out of trouble not us out of trouble. Whatever we had to do to get those guys out, that is what we had to do.”
Phil: “What is the Number one rule for a doorgunner on every mission, and you had 854 combat missions?”
Mike: “Don’t shoot the Helicopter first!” Mike stated emphatically. “That didn’t happen to me, but it did happen when someone shot a skid onetime. But, I blame training on that. The Detachments didn’t have reciprocal training programs. They had whatever that particular Det had evolved into, by the time I got there. Once they became Detachments and started to spread them all over the Delta, there was none of this coming back to the Squadrons for seminars type thing. That didn’t exist. The training evolved for both pilots and gunners. With Tom, the co-pilots never shot the rockets, but in my Det, not only did they shoot the rockets but alternated handling the helicopter and making the radio calls.”
SCRAMBLE THE SEAWOLVES: The Scramble: “We had the world’s best mission. Our job was to be the 2nd Calvary who arrive over the hill and the Indians have the wagon trains surrounded. We shoot the Indians, they leave, we save the settlers.”
Tom: “At the Bien Long Airfield we had a radio that came on and announced a scramble situation. They would call down to our hooch in the middle of the night and we would be airborne in five (5) minutes and that includes driving down to the aircraft. Later on, we had an operations trailer and had a crew that slept down by the helicopter and we were up and running almost immediately. Seems like we always scrambled in the middle of the night. That is tough to go from a dead sleep and wake up and scramble your brains, get in the helicopter, crank stuff up and head to the mission.
We slept with our life jacket on with fourteen (14) pound chest protectors on and they were hard to sleep in on the world’s filthiest mattress. We slept with our boots on. The heat and humidity was staggering. It was miserable but you had to do it.
We got a briefing once we were inside the helicopter. At night, was harder because you couldn’t see the terrain, but you could see the tracers. I would have the co-pilot write down the coordinates with a grease pencil on the windscreen. He has his map out immediately and at this time I am not concerned what the doorgunner is doing. Every person has their job and they have to do that job. If you have a co-pilot and he doesn’t know the lay of the land, you are basically in trouble. The inexperienced ones are usually in the wing ship. He is coordinating and confirming the target with you and confirming on the map. The doorgunners, with M-60s on each side and on headset, are waiting for what the Aircraft Commander tells them. The Commander is in control of the rockets and he can also shoot the “flex guns” on the side, when they are fixed. When everybody does their job, it is pretty neat.”
Mike: “I was at three (3) places where we scrambled. Off the LSTs, SEAFLOAT, and at Solid Anchor. The scramble was loud and you would come out of your bunk from a dead sleep. On the LSTs they would come running down to our area and yell, “scramble, scramble.” We were stacked three (3) high there. Sometimes I needed a parachute to get out of there. The crews knew not to get in our way. We were coming, and running. The scrambles were all “high priorities” for us. It was like competitive submarine drills. We, as gunners, were always thinking of ways to make us scramble faster. We didn’t have uniforms. We had old rag t-shirts or cutoffs.
Some Dets had right door or left door gunners, I flew either one. I understand why they would fly either right or left. The senior gunner normally flew on the right door because they had the 50 or the mini-gun on the right door. They had a little bit more responsibility.
On the LST’s only one helicopter could fire up at a time. There was no room for rotor clearance for both of them to fire up at the same time. The rotor was tied up to the tail. So, the first thing you did was untie and run to the front where we had eyes on the pilots. You could hear that roar of the turbine coming up and the snap of the igniters. That sound NEVER goes out of your head. The pilot and co-pilots were already in their seats and we would run to the cabin. The instruments come up in green and the co-pilot is talking to the pilot. The pilot may be on the radio getting the coordinates. He had no idea where he was going until he got into that helicopter.
The gunners are slipping our flight suit on. Our helmet and flight gloves are right there on our seat. Our boots are there with a zipper on the side for a speed entry. We are opening the access doors to check for hydraulic or fuel leaks. By the time we are up to speed the co-pilot would say we are all up to green and the right gunner would report right clear, tail clear, left gunner, left clear and tail clear. That was our check-in that we were on board and everything was cleared. Then the pilot would go green and off we go.
On the ship and LST, the gunners would have their ammo can, which was over a hundred pounds. It was sitting in the door with your knee up against it. There is a ring on the rocket pod for quick release and our hand would be in that ring. On the LST you would hover and move forward. You would lose all your lift because now it was 15-20 feet to the water. The pilot had to nose down and clear the tail and dive for the water. At night this is extremely dangerous. The standing order was if the gunner had any hesitation, whatsoever that we were not going to make it, we would release the rockets and pitch the ammo. That would give the pilot a chance. It did happen. One time I did dump the ammo but not the rockets. We were trusted to make that decision. There was no time for the pilot to make that call. The LSTs and the Seafloat were that way. Once the first helicopter lifted off then the 2nd would fire up and take off. He would be a couple of minutes behind catching up. It got to a point where we stopped taking off the LSTs at night because it was so dangerous. That is when we moved to Solid Anchor.”
Phil: “Mike, you guys were “adrenalin junkies.” You went from a dead sleep to this checklist of items you have to do in a matter of minutes. How does a person do that?”
Mike: “There was an evolution that if you could not do that, you were gone. We only had about thirty (30) yards to go from out bunk to the helicopter on Solid Anchor. We had to go farther on Seafloat because you had to run the length of Seafloat to get to the helos. We set record times all the time. In the hooch it is a wonder the door was not in pieces on the ground because we hit it running so fast. You never slept solid. We slept in patches and we never had set hours we worked. You slept when you could or you were tired. There were times on a scramble where I could take a quick nap on the way out and sitting in the open door, in the rain, unbelted in. Being able to pop awake like that doesn’t go away after that tour.
We are on the same frequencies as Tom. We are hearing every word he is saying. We can flip a couple of switches and talk between ourselves, the pilots could flip that same switch up front and get in on our private conversation. We didn’t need individual direction to what was going on. Some gunners would be under the supervision of a more experienced crew for at least a month and the training of a doorgunner was sometimes “brutal.” You screw up, we split helmets. You learned the hard way and you didn’t want to make that mistake again. Lives were at stake. The feedback was immediate and probably a real “come to Jesus,” moment when you got back on the ground. The gunners were very serious with each other, there was no automatic acceptance. We had the elimination factor. You wanted to be the “go to “ gunner. There were good gunners and bad gunners and there were good and bad pilots. You wanted to be one of those that were picked. The same thing was probably happening in the officer hooch too.”
LOCATING THE ENEMY:
Mike: “You might have outgoing tracers from below with our Seal teams and that would pinpoint the enemy right away. We sometimes asked them to, “mark your target,” and they would with their tracers. There were times when the enemy didn’t know where the Seals were at. The Seals had a strobe light and they could put a cover on it and they could point that strobe at us we could see it but the VC couldn’t see it. There was some very interesting “calling in fires” with that type of operation. In that case the Seals did not want to give up their position. They may have been about to be overrun.
We got a call one night and they had the strobe on and they were whispering in the radio. I had never heard a Seal whisper in the radio before. It is a good indication where the bad guys are. They asked the pilot what we had for ordinance – we had flechettes and HE’s ….. the SEAL said “fantastic then shoot at the strobe”. The pilot came back and said, “please confirm, you are holding the strobe”. A whisper confirmed, that is affirmative. The pilot again, “please confirm, you want us to shoot at the strobe you are holding”. “That is affirmed, we are dug in a hole and you have to put it right down the chimney. They are all around us, bring it on.” “We brought it on, and you got to trust those guys,” said Mike. “There were two (2) Seals on a stakeout. The one on the radio starts laughing, “you just stapled three (3) of em to a tree down here.”
“There was another with the Seals that we brought it 100-yards then 50-yards and they finally said, “bring it ten more feet.” “Can you imagine, dead of night shooting a 50-calibre that didn’t have a flash suppresser on it, and bringing it ten more feet?” and Mike starts laughing at the story. “You knew they were in trouble or they wouldn’t be asking for it. We extracted them out the next morning and I was in my hooch. In comes one of these Seals, he is filthy, dirty and had been running in the jungle, sweat, makeup, the whole thing. He asked, “Who the hell was shooting the 50-calibre last night? I thought I was going to get my butt kicked. He said, “You could shoot over me, any day” and starts laughing. Then he told of the mission from the “mud’s eye view” We had to train the gunners coming up the same way. They were brought along slowly and bring their confidence level, to know what they were doing, and build MY confidence in them. It was a big deal,” said Mike.
Tom: “We flew about 50/50 at night,” said Tom. “We went out every day, looking for trouble. They wanted to shoot the SEAWOLVES down. The enemy saw our logo on front and they knew who we were and the word gets out. In Bien Long they had VC sympathizers working inside the base. They knew who we were.
If we were at 1000-feet or more, technically you are away from small arms fire. We usually flew at about 800-feet and pulled off target at 300-feet in a normal ground attack. Anything below that you are just asking for trouble and you expose your doorgunners. I have hit a few branches before,” laughed Tom.
REFUEL AND RELOAD
Tom: “When we came back to refuel and reload “hot,” I remember that you had to ground the helicopter properly and get back out as quickly as possible. The doorgunners took over and us pilots just sat there and relied on them to get reloaded and refueled. It was like a flight deck of an aircraft carrier. I was 24 and watched those “young kids” do their job,” laughed Tom.
Mike: “Even if we were called back from a scramble, we would still come back and refuel and reload at the same speed as with a back and forth rearm/refuel. You never knew when you would get called back for the next scramble. We didn’t operate out of a fuel truck. We always had a big hose coming out of a fuel tank somewhere either or the barge, LST or a bladder onshore. We had a hose like a gas station, only it was longer. We would rearm and refuel at the same time. The pilots would be monitoring the fuel gages. You didn’t go to top off like in a car. It was up to the pilot. He knew the weather conditions, the temperature, and humidity because that would determine the power of that aircraft sometimes. Some models had more “oomph” than other models. We had a standard weight for the rockets and door guns. He could adjust the fuel level for the load. It took whatever it took to get those “skids” off the ground. Many times, the gunners, did get out of the helicopter and run alongside and jump back into the helicopter. It wasn’t real common, but yeah, we did the “Huey Shuffle,” to get airborne. Our pilots never hit the nose or the tail when coming out of a revetment, and I have no idea how that never happened. I doubt there was ever more than two-feet on each end. Once he started to “swing it,” we dove in. It was all about timing.
“We flew so close to the treetops there were times when we came back with branches in the rocket tubes. John Wayne’s famous quote, “Courage is being scared stiff, but still saddling up.” If had a realistic hesitation about the condition of the aircraft, that would be researched. But, if you had this feeling and you didn’t want to take a flight, you were probably going to be gone. I always liked to fly on the “smaller side,” of 500-feet. One-hundred-feet over the treetops, I am a happy camper. Closer the better. The closer you were, the tighter the pattern.
With the jungle we had down further south, the jungle was our cover. We knew where they were at, but they couldn’t see us. In the rice paddy area that is a little bit different story. They could see you really good and you had to maintain a little more altitude. There were no mountains to hide behind. It was all flat, it was the Delta. Those areas were not to our advantage. You get too high and the tracers burn out before they get there. As a tracer burns it changes weight. One out of every five rounds contained a tracer. Our tracer’s were red. The enemy was normally green. You are looking at the backside of a tracer when a bullet is coming at you.
There were an amazing number of times that we took “hits,” but within an inch or two, there were no fatalities. There were several cases where a crewman got their microphone cords shot off. One came in behind his ear and sliced his skull, came out the other side, and he kept shooting the whole time. One-quarter inch and he wouldn’t be with us.”
Tom: “True story, I once had a gunner who caught a round that was shot at him. It hit him in his hand and there was the round. Amazing,” said Tom shaking his head.
HUEY GUNSHIPS AND THEIR FIREPOWER:
Mike: “When Tom was in Vietnam the UH-1s had “Flex guns,” a pair of M-60s mounted on the pods on either side. By the time I got there, They had a mini-gun mounted on one side, because you didn’t want the 50-calibre mounted on the same side. You needed that “field of fire,” for the 50. We carried M-60’s even if you were the 50-gunner. The left gunner always had an M-60 and M-79s a single shot shotgun shooting the grenades. We had them for each gunner. We had M-16s onboard for the pilots if we went down. Each crew and the pilots would carry either a 45 or 38 caliber. We had spare barrels, bolts and once in a while we had a spare receiver. We would normally carry a half-dozen barrels in a rack back of the pilots. We had asbestos gloves to change out “HOT” barrels.
If there ever was a “failure to fire,” you had to examine why. You could have broken the firing pin, then it would jam, it is not the barrels fault. If you “brassed” the barrel , it meant you had expanded the chamber and it tore the head off the shell. It was stuck and you couldn’t put another one in. You could hit a lever and eject the barrel right out on the floor.
With the 60’s when you got the barrels really hot, you didn’t address the jam immediately. We dropped it onto the deck, put your foot on top of it with the ejection port down because it was probably going to blow in about fifteen seconds. Once it blew, it wasn’t going to blow again. You didn’t want to use a screwdriver trying to get rid of the jam when that thing lit off. That was bad. In about fifteen seconds it would cool down enough. You could then clear the jam and eject the barrel, slip another one in, throw the handle and go. There was just a “quick lock flipper,” and you could eject the barrel. It was very fast.
My weapon of choice was an M-60. I always, always had an M-60 on board. That was my “fallback,” all the time. The 50, you couldn’t fix it in flight and those barrels were really heavy. The M-60 used the same ammo as the “mini guns,” did, 7.62mm. In a normal can, we carried 2,150 rounds. We had about 4,000 in the minigun. If we needed it, we could rob from the minigun. If you went down, you could move with a 60. You won’t go anywhere with a 50-cal.
I normally didn’t put my foot out on the skid. I had my shoulder braced up against the partition between the pilot’s door and our doorgunner opening. I would brace up on it. It was how I stabilized. I did not like to wear a “monkey belt.” That is why we trained the pilots to call “ coming left, or coming right”. When he said that, you shifted your balance. It wasn’t a conscious shift, but I prepared for it and didn’t get caught off guard and throw you out. It was a “reflex,” the pilots and co-pilots did not even know they were saying it before we were shifting. They warned us, coming right, coming left. We prepared.
We got shot at all the time. That was a daily occurrence. Most of the time, we did not hear a round hitting the helicopter. It was like hitting a beer can, it is aluminum. If a 50 hits the transmission, then you are in trouble. You are going down and you knew you had taken a hit. We had a 50-round hit the 60-barrel spare in the rack. We knew when that happened.”
Tom: “The transmission on the aircraft was the worst spot to get hit. Engine, you can auto-rotate, transmission, you are a free-falling object. We took a 50 thru the nose one time. Tremendous vibration when it hit. Went all the way thru and out and somehow did not get the rotor system. There was a lot of luck involved. If you took a round in the main rotors, sometimes you will hear a whistling noise, and say well probably took a round in the rotor system. You don’t want to take one in the tail rotor. You can handle one, it is not as bad as taking one in the transmission. If you are low to the ground, all bets are off the table.
In the South where we were at, you are not going to be treated really well as a POW. By the time you got up to the camps in the North, you probably are going to be dead. It happened on our base at Long Bien. An Army guy got caught. A Vietnamese girl enticed him out of his security area. They nabbed him. Some Army crew saw him going down the Kho Chien River in a Sampan and saved him. He was a lucky son of a gun.”
Mike: “We busted a POW camp in our area. The Intel was that there were some Americans in it. By the time we got it, they had been moved. There were some Army Vietnamese POWs in that camp and we got them out. There was a book entitled, “FIVE YEARS TO FREEDOM,” about an advisor that was captured and he was five years in the area I was at, before he escaped. It was a miracle he wasn’t gunned down by our own gunners. In five years, he was down to pajamas too. He was pulled out by an Army crew who spotted him during a firefight.”
DECOMPRESSING AFTER A MISSION:
Tom: “The first few years when I got back from Vietnam, I had some problems. It effected my marriage and ended in divorce. I feel very badly about that. I got thru it with the help of a book entitled, “STORIES OF FAITH AND COURAGE,” from the Vietnam War. It covers every branch of the service. It is a MUST read for anybody, especially the Vietnam Veterans.
I finally had to come to grips with myself. My older son said, “dad, we got to get together and he got me involved with the church.” I thought I was fine when I got back. Later, talking with my family, I was not ok. You are just, unwinding all of a sudden, after twelve (12) months of this. You come back to a country that doesn’t care. Worse experience of my life, and I will never forget about it to this day. I remember going thru San Francisco Airport. It was just disgusting. To this day, it still makes me mad.”
Mike: “As a squadron, we didn’t rotate back like Tom did. We didn’t travel together. We were rotated as individuals. I came in by myself. We didn’t have any decompress time. You got on the “big bird,” and that was straight arrow with a couple fuel stops on the way back to the states. From sunup to sundown, you had gone from, “Full Combat,” to San Francisco where I landed at 2:00 a.m.
It would be like you driving to work and every day at the intersection there is a three-car pile-up and a couple of fatalities. If you saw that every day it would not stand out as significant. That is what we were. We saw this stuff on a daily basis. We lived with the bad guys. They were trying to get us EVERY SINGLE DAY. Then, all of the sudden we were home. Medals? There were far more medals not awarded than were awarded.”
APRIL 1971 GOING HOME:
Mike: “I was standing down and ready to take the Freedom Bird home. I was asleep and got woke up. “Dobby” (nickname for Mike in Vietnam), we need another gunner to man the Sealord. To my knowledge none of our gunners had ever served as a gunner on a Sealord. He said, “we have a bunch of ARVN wounded and needed a medivac.” Both our gunships were out of commission so we didn’t have a gunship to fly escort. He said, “he wanted two gunners on board. He said, I will go as a gunner if you will go.” He knew I had already stood down and was headed home. So, I said, ok I will go. So, we grab our machine guns and head out to the Sealord. Dave went back to get something and the pilot says, “we are only going with one gunner, set Dave’s machine to the side.” “I picked up Dave’s and my gun and headed back to the hooch.” Pilot asked, “where are you going?” I said, “I am going back to bed.” He said, “I said we are only going with one gunner.” And I replied, “wrong answer. Your only option is you go with two gunners or you go with no gunners. He decided he needed two gunners.
We thought we were going in with no cover at all. As we arrived, we saw that Det-6 had been scrambled. They arrived just as we were going in. So, they were flying gun cover for us. Dave and I already decided how we wanted the medivac to be done. We had two M-60s on board. We told the pilot we wanted a straight in approach from the side and to land right on the edge of the ARVN’s, and load the wounded in the side. We were going to shoot all the way in and continue to shoot on the ground, and all the way out.
As we made the approach, “Kid,” got shot in the head in a Det 6 gunship. He had gotten creased, in the back of his skull, by the AK-round and kept shooting. The co-pilot in the other gunship got shot in the foot. Lead and Trail took wounds but they never left station or failed to stay in the fight. We were busy on the ground and did not know what had happened to our crew flying cover above us. We got back and the ambulances were arriving to pick up our wounded. Our Sealord ended up making nine flights doing medivacs that day, under fire.”
TET OFFENSIVE, 1968:
Tom: “There were several different areas where intelligence “fell down” during the Tet Offensive. The Maverick gunship Platoon at Bien Long Airfield were on an operation the day before and they caught a bunch of “Cong” with their weapons coming down a canal. They said there were hundreds of them. It was a “Turkey Shoot,” they got em. They turned in the intelligence of the operation and nobody did anything. No one in Saigon did anything, it was just outrageous. On top of that none of the “base workers,” came to work that day. That was a big clue because some of them were Vietcong sympathizers.
We were all in our hooch’s sound asleep. Ninety-two (92) mortars hit us on the base. When we got hit by mortars we would run outside and jump in the hole with sandbags and turn on our recorder. We got hit with at least 92-mortars. The helicopter “ready shack,” for the airfield, took a direct hit.
They were on fire. Shooting was going on all over the place. We jumped into the old Dodge pickup truck and drove right into the middle of them. We get into the Operations Trailer and our Maintenance Officer starts handing our weapons. He hands me an M-79 and I asked, what is this? “Look, it is a grenade launcher, shoot it like a shotgun, take it.” “It was kind of fun, actually,” laughed Tom. “I don’t know if I could hit anybody with it. I also had my 45 and my M16. The Viet Cong are across the runway from us. Dick Morris, one of our co-pilots, comes running out with his flip-flops and skivvies on. He had an early model M16 and ran right into the middle of them. It jammed, and he got hit three times by the Cong. They were all carrying little American M1 carbines. He ran out of there and collapsed. Thank God he lived.
Everybody was shooting at everything. American were shooting at Americans and Vietcong. The overhead gunships were shooting at everybody and dropping white phosphorous grenades. . We were near these pipes and somebody was throwing grenades at us. We didn’t know who, it was dark. Finally, somebody yelled, STOP SHOOTING. Our Lieutenant, and the Airfield Commander, got in his jeep and went roaring down the runway. They raked him with their AK-47s, and he was the first one killed. Overall, 44 were killed including 12 Americans and a bunch of our guys wounded. It was terrifying and a bad situation.
The Navy Seals fought their way from downtown Saigon and out to the Bien Long Airfield and helped us out. The PBR base at Bien Long was burnt to the ground so they got out in the river and got away from them.
The second night was just as bad. We were in our sandbag bunkers and we had these night vision telescopes and you can see the people moving out there. It was eerie. One of our maintenance people got a Silver Star. We were in an Army outpost and did some heroic things. They came in from the dredge pipes from the river. They crawled in with their satchels and had their artillery out there. The next two nights were really scary and we were mortared all the time,” said Tom. “The Seawolves were flying 24-hours a day. I fell asleep as a co-pilot while they were shooting the machine guns. We were exhausted.
Later, after the war, Al Weseleskey went back to Vietnam and met with the Vietcong Artillery Commander and talked about the battle at the Airfield. He said, “We lost a lot of our people here,” and the Commander said, “well, they are buried over there,” pointing to a spot near the canal. The American bodies were later recovered.
To this day, I still have a problem going back to those horrible nights at the Airfield during the TET Offensive. Seeing kids killed. I will never forget the next morning, I was out in my flight suit and had my M-79 and there were some wounded Vietcong laying on the ground. This kid was wounded with a compound fracture and the bone showing thru his femur. He was in shock and his eyes looking up. I looked at this kid. Twelve, thirteen or fourteen years old. This Army guy came up and said, “I am going to kill him.” “I took my M79 and pointed at him and said, “get the blank out of here,” and he left. I took him over to our medical office at the morgue, took a garden hose and kind of washed him off. First time I saw someone die right in front of me. To this day, I can’t get over it.”
WE GOT YOUR SIX:
Mike: “Everyday was the “last day” type of thing. You didn’t learn a lot about the other guy. It was a self-preservation type of thing. The teams rotated. The Lead officer’s knew each other and some of the Seals. We got together and played, “Jungle Rules” volleyball with the Seals. It was a brutal, have fun type of deal. We didn’t know them as individuals, as such. You didn’t want to know him as a “Brother,” and have to call firepower on him. You had to do what he wanted. Too close a connection wasn’t necessarily good. There was always this, “Did we do it good enough?”
MISSION: “Barndance 59”
MIKE: “I am not the “Mike” that Grant is referring to below —- he is talking to Mike Slattery, who has headed this mission to rectify the awards of Barndance 59. Grant wrote the dialog in the attachment —- each of us wrote our own recollection of the event —– and as you will read, is only from the view of Grants eyes and memory —– the event had an additional twist from the gunship side of the battle. Although we were a 2-gunship team, trail ship had vanished from the battle. No response to radio calls or view of the trail ship had happened during the peak of the engagement — he had vanished …….. the loss of trail was ignored and we stayed focused on the SEALS and getting them extracted, on the table – unstated between us, we knew a landing by us was probably going to happen and we would stand to the end with the SEALS. As the Slick was lifting off with the wounded SEALS aboard, we took lead and continued to plow the way through the firefight to clear the area for the slick — it was at this time , as we were exiting the area, and about to start the search for Seawolf trail, that we saw Seawolf trail once again in position and part of the extraction — unknown to us, Seawolf trail had literally “gone to the ground” in the middle of the battle —— a story in itself ——– sensory overload had prevented response to our radio calls , and focus on the mission at hand had kept us from leaving the SEALS, or seeing Seawolf trail’s plight.”
PHIL: Zulu Platoon
“The SEAL Team ONE Zulu Platoon mission of January 30, 1971, was based on intelligence indicating a Viet Cong supply area being guarded by on old man and a boy. It would be a quick helicopter insertion and destruction of reported ammunition supplies. The first insertion was aborted when an enemy round fired from the ground hit FN Marcus Arroyo, who was radioman and grenadier. We returned to Solid Anchor. The flight crew examined the Sealord’s helicopter, which had no bullet hits or other damage. The wound received by Arroyo was a fluke.
After a discussion, it was decided to continue the mission. The round that hit Arroyo had to have come from a location distant from the target, and I concluded that we had not been compromised. LTJG Tom Richards, the Assistant Platoon Commander, took Arroyo’s place. He would carry the radio and his Stoner A-63 weapon. Insofar as my Patrol Leader jacket only carried four 40mm grenades, I took Arroyo’s grenade vest, wanting a full grenade load for the mission.
We took off and proceeded to the LZ, and inserted into a paddy area. There was a north south rice dike which we went over, then the squad moved east on an east west rice dike towards the target, which was on the other side of a second north south rice dike. BM3 James Rowland was walking point, low on the north side of the east west dike. I was about ten yards behind, low on the south side of the dike. Tom Richards was behind me, on the north side of the dike, followed by EN3 Don Futrell, SN Gary Lawrence and SN Oliver Hedge, all staggered and separated. I noticed a stand-alone hooch to the south and ahead, on the next down east west dike line. I paid particular attention to it as we moved. We moved slowly.
At a point where Rowland was about halfway to the target dike, he went down, fast. I immediately knew he had been hit, although I’d heard no sound. My reaction was to go to his aid, and lifted my left foot to the top of the dike to go to him. At that point I was hit by a round. It penetrated my left kneecap, traveled up my leg, exited, entered my right leg, lodged in the femur, and the energy carried me several feet backwards into the paddy. I reacted by aiming my weapon at the stand-alone hooch and firing. When I emptied the magazine, I went for another in the upper part of Arroyo’s vest and pulled out an Instamatic camera. I stared at it, put it back and looked for the rest of the squad. I saw Futrell firing at the target dike, and realized the hooch was not a target, so I sent my ready 40mm grenade at that place Futrell was aiming.
I then moved to the dike, and found my legs were both paralyzed. At that point, Tom Richards came up, talking on the radio. He was standing on the dike, making no effort to take cover, looking at the target and talking. I realized he was directing a Seawolf strike. As I watched, I heard a yell from Futrell. I looked. He had both hands on his chest, and yelled “I’M HIT!”. Then he dropped. I yelled at Tom to call for an extraction. Then Tom yelled out and shook his hand. He had been hit. He stared at his hand, shook it again, then talked on the radio. Then he went to get Rowland. By this time the enemy fire was distinct, and Tom was completely exposed, He ignored it and began dragging Rowland out of the kill zone.
I heard gunfire close by me. Lawrence, also on the top of the dike, was providing covering fire. He reached down and dragged me out of the rice paddy onto the dike. Lawrence also was completely exposed above me, and was taking deliberate aim towards a target he saw. I looked towards the target dike line and saw green tracers going up towards the Seawolf. Anti-aircraft fire. It was clear the intelligence had been very wrong. I saw Rowland being dragged by on the north side of the dike by Richards. There was a lot of water there, so I slid down into the water, and found I could float. I used my hands to pull on rice plants to follow Tom and Rowland, throwing my weapon ahead of me as I moved. At the time, my big concern was Rowland. I had not heard any cries from him, nor seen any movement, and feared he was dead.
As I got near Rowland, Tom was dragging Futrell across the first north south dike line, with his good hand. Then he was on the radio. He was still completely out in the open, ignoring the now heavy enemy fire that had already wounded him. I could hear the rockets from the Seawolf attack, and explosions along the target dike. I looked back and saw a huge palm tree cartwheeling in the air. I began to prepare my weapon to fire, but realized that I was too low to even see a target, and I couldn’t move. Lawrence was up on the dike above me, moving and firing. Another Stoner was firing and I knew it was Hedge. Hedge also had to be exposed to the enemy fire.
The Sealord’s helicopter was making an approach, to the same point we had inserted. Tom Richards, still up and in the open, grabbed me again and dragged me over the north south dike towards the helicopter. I noted his radio handset was in the mud, and started to reach to retrieve it, but realized there was no need for further communications.
The next sight was beyond belief. One at a time, Richards, in the open, and with only one arm, lifted Futrell, then Rowland, up into the helicopter until a crewman could grab them and drag them in. Then Tom grabbed me, yelled at me to reach for a handhold and lifted me up. I was amazed at his strength. As I looked up, two bullet holes appeared in the fuselage high above me.
Someone dragged me in and I felt the full pain of my wounds. I heard Futrell’s cries of pain. A crewman appeared with a needle and yelled “Morphine!” I yelled “NO!” and “What about Rowland?” I heard “I’m here, Mister T” in Jim’s voice and was relieved. Then Tom Richards fell on me, causing more pain. I felt him moving about and found out he was pulling Lawrence into the helicopter. As we headed to Solid Anchor someone gave me a morphine shot and I relaxed.
The injured men, including Arroyo, were transported to the Army Third Surgical Hospital, in Binh Thuy. Shortly after our surgical treatment, we were visited by Lt Joseph DeFloria, the SEAL Team One Detachment OIC, my immediate superior. During my interview, I told him the account as best I could, and emphasized the heroism of LTJG Richards. I expressly told DeFloria that, but for the heroism of Richards, the entire squad would still be in the rice paddy. DeFloria said that Richards would be getting ‘at least’ a Silver Star, and that Captain O’Drain, ComNavSpecWarVietnam, was trying for a Navy Cross. DeFloria had done other interviews and, because of my medical condition, would be preparing the after-action report (Barndance Card). I was later told that Lieutenant Dick Couch, OIC of the other Solid Anchor SEAL platoon, actually did it. I was never asked for any written statement, assured that ‘everything was being taken care of.
Zulu Platoon had been days away from redeployment to CONUS and went back on schedule, minus the five wounded. LTJG Richards, being ambulatory, left the Third Surgical Hospital soon after. Arroyo, Futrell, Rowland and I were first sent to an Air Force hospital in Japan, and then back to Naval Hospital San Diego, in March. On arrival, we were met by an O-6 Chief of Service who advised us that we were in patients, but would not be admitted to the hospital. Instead, we were to be on medical status at home. My wife was required to transport me to Balboa several times a week for treatment and PT. By the time I was released, in July, I had been promoted to O-4 and reassigned to the Special Warfare staff. Because of being away from the team or platoon members, my contact with my former platoon members was non-existent.
I attended the wedding of Tom Richards a few months later, but he was also transferred. James Rowland had been transferred from Balboa to a hospital in the Northwest and medically retired. I understood Lawrence and Hedge left the Navy after their enlistments expired. I remember seeing Arroyo at one time, and told him I had not let the corpsmen cut his grenade vest off me, because I knew his wife had made it for him.
I served as Commanding Officer of SEAL Team ONE 1974-76. During that time, I was contacted by Jim Rowland, who was up before a medical evaluation board at the Bremerton Naval Hospital. They had determined he was ‘fit for duty’ and would revoke his medical retirement income and support. He was naturally upset and wanted assistance. I confronted the head of the Board and used my influence to have Rowland returned to active duty and to SEAL Team One. Rowland served with me for the rest of my command tour. After that tour, I was transferred to the University of Washington NROTC Unit and never returned to Special Warfare. I never again saw Tom Richards or any of the other members of Zulu Platoon while in the Navy.
When I learned Tom Richards had made flag rank, I was particularly pleased to see that a hero had made it to that level. Rowland, Futrell and I all owed our lives to him in particular, as well as to Lawrence, Hedge and the incredible Sealord’s and Seawolf pilots. Until recently, I never knew that the Silver Star had been downgraded to a Bronze Star. I have been upset at this travesty ever since. Fifty years later I still remember the particular events of that day. Seeing the heroism of Tom, burdened with a wounded hand and a heavy radio, without regard for his own safety, effecting the successful extraction of a squad in serious danger, is a sight I will never forget. And the squad lived through that day and beyond solely due to the heroism of Richards and Lawrence.”
MIKE: “During the period 2012-2014 the last Vietnam Seal retired. Some of them had “broken service.” Some of us went to his retirement in San Diego. There was a large hotel ballroom setting near Coronado. There was a “huge” number of people in there for that retirement. There were all these windows in the hallway and then you reached this foyer before you went into the ballroom. They had a …………. Seal Team One……… an Emblem about 2-3 foot in diameter. To the right of it was the Seal Team Two Emblem….. (Mike takes a long pause before continuing, this was very emotional for him.). In between it …… they had the SEAWOLF Emblem.”
PHIL: “I looked at Mike, and said, “THAT’S RESPECT….”
Mike: “When I got back from Vietnam, I knew it was going to take some reacclimating. So, one of the other door gunners and I took a well-planned motorcycle trip when I got back. I got discharged in San Francisco and flew down to Los Angeles and met him. He had come back from Wisconsin. We picked out identical bikes and we went on a six-week motorcycle ride. I had not even been back to Iowa yet. I knew I had to “UNWIND.”
Even if you were in maintenance or another job there, “THE KID DIDN’T COME HOME.” Like they said in the Documentary, “You went over a 19-year-old kid and come back a 20-year-old man.” “Massive, massive change happens whether you realize it or not.
To this day I still continue pushing the limits in different directions. Many of the lessons I learned, from those communications going back and forth from the pilot and co-pilots. You don’t want to do this or that, because of this. When I came back I earned a pilot license. I became a bush pilot in Alaska. Many of the things I learned listening to these conversations, those lessons got me home safe many times. Valuable lessons I learned in Vietnam.
“I would do it all over again, in a heartbeat,” Mike said emphatically. When I came back from Vietnam I didn’t tell my family or friends anything about what I did. They knew I was a doorgunner. I kept letters in my flight suit for six weeks one time. Never got a chance to read them. They knew what I was doing, but then again, they didn’t know what I was doing. Unless you were there, I am sure Tom is the same way, we usually don’t elaborate on what we did because it was so unique. Even today, between some of the services, it is often viewed as, that didn’t really happen. Shooting “free gun.” None of the other services shot this way. We maintained them, we modified them and we developed our own techniques. We had reason for what we did and it was highly successful. Some people just can’t believe, we did that. On the civilian side, we believe, why go there?”
Mike: “In addition to being the most decorated squadron, we didn’t get the highest decoration, but I will add to it…… we were the most under-decorated squadron. NO QUESTION, there were situations that occurred that SHOULD have been recognized for MEDAL OF HONOR consideration.
You find different ways to deal with stress. Sometimes it was with humor. We pulled a lot of stunts with the crew, just a way of “Blowing off steam.” This trip I made to Vietnam…. IS THERE EVERYDAY, IT DOESN’T GO AWAY. To talk to a therapist in one of their PTSD counseling sessions, to most of us, is academia. In my mind, it is not really effective. Our therapy, like what we are doing right now and with Tom, our reunions are very special therapy. Someone, who hasn’t been to one of our reunions, without FAIL, when they have been to one …. They will tell me, I ain’t missing another one.”
May 1994 Seawolf Reunion Speech
RADM Kevin Delaney (1946-2015)
During the entire war in Vietnam, no squadron flew more at night or in the day. No squadron flew more combat missions and no squadron earned more awards or recognition. Here in this hall of honor for all who have been a part of naval aviation since its inception, let me recount a few of the amazing statistics compiled by the SEAWOLVES of HAL-3:
Over 78,000 missions
131,000 flight hours
4,000 plus confirmed kills with another 4,200 listed as “probable”
6,400 sampans confirmed destroyed and another 2,300 “probable”
Over 4,000 structures destroyed and 5,500 plus damaged
While numbers and some statistics may vary slightly, the men of HAL-3 were awarded:
5 Navy Crosses
31 Silver Star Medals
2 Legion of Merit Medals
5 Navy and Marine Corps Medals
219 Distinguished Flying Crosses
156 Purple Hearts
101 Bronze Star Medals
142 Gallantry Crosses
Over 16,000 Air Medals
439 Navy Commendation Medals
228 Navy Achievement Medals
6 Presidential Unit Citations
2 Meritorious Unit Commendations
1 Vietnam Meritorious Unit Commendation
But all of these triumphs were not without a cost as 44 of our comrades paid the ultimate price in the service of our country.
On 26 January 1972, SEAWOLVES of HAL-3 were disestablished, but not before they had earned an honored place in the annals of naval aviation history and the begrudging respect of the Viet Cong. While America may have pulled out of Vietnam without having finished the job it set out to do, it would be all too easy to dismiss our efforts as futile. For our part, the SEAWOLVES saved countless lives and ‘wrote a new, brave and heretofore unheard-of chapter in Naval Aviation history.
We were indeed a dominant force in the Mekong Delta and we rewrote the books with regard to employment of helicopters in riverine warfare. Simply put, the SEAWOLVES of HAL-3 have set a benchmark standard which will be hard, if not impossible to beat. The SEAWOLVES, like the Vietnam war itself.. are now indelibly inscribed in the annals of history. And, while some memories may fade away over time, no one… absolutely no one, can deny that while we fought in a very controversial and unconventional conflict.. .for our part, we prevailed! ! Source: seawolf.org
TOM: “The horror that night at TET, and the second night when the fear set in. If anybody says they weren’t scared, is an outright liar. The word, COURAGE, is actually FEAR. If you don’t have fear, you will not have courage. We slept with a 45 on our chest. It was a humbling experience.
I got very sick one time, I lost 23 lbs. in 2 days, and almost died. Antibiotics got me back up, and two days later I am flying. It is no fun when you have an attack and you have to go to the bathroom in your flight suit. I look back at these guys in WWII. Since I have come back from Vietnam, I watch movies all the time about these guys. What they endured and what they went thru. I have such an affinity for all veterans now.
Mike made a great statement, we were probably the most, under-rewarded squadron in Vietnam. We weren’t there for the medals. I don’t care about medals. I volunteered, I wanted to be there. I did my best.”
Tom Crull (UH1-B Pilot) and Mike Dobson (Doorgunner), thank you for your service to our country while serving in the United States Navy.
Your courage and bravery with the “Seawolves,” in Vietnam will not be forgotten.
NOTE: Meet other Veterans from Van Zandt County by going to the top of www.vzcm.org webpage and click on MEET OUR VETERANS and click one of the (5) branches of services and the veterans last name first and click to read.
“Every Veteran has a story to tell.” Phil Smith
GOD BLESS OUR VETERANS AND GOD BLESS AMERICA
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