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War Stories

The First Centaur Casuality - 5 May 1966

by Bob Graham, some editing by Ruth Ann and Carl Burns

People involved: Reggie Slater, Tony Robinson, James Peterson, Carl Burns, Roland Petty, Francis Xavier Delvy, Nat O'Day, Peter Moore, Herbert Caddell, Clarence A Olzewski, John R. Hendry, Gene Prosser, Herb Beasley, Dean Smith

See a first person VIDEO account by Reggie Slater

update 16Dec2018

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This is the account of D Troops first death casualty, killed in action (KIA) May 5, 1966. Gunship Door Gunner Specialist 4 Mac Meese.

The Solemn Occasion

We gathered on our small acreage in the recently Americanized Vietnamese peanut field. We were in a loose uncomfortable cluster, most of the eleven hooch mates, comrades of the deceased from tent #29.

It is the reality of combat that some will die and there has to be a first one. All present at this May 6th, 1966 troop formation wanted to gather and pay our respects to our fallen comrade, SP4 Mac H. Meese of Drum, Kentucky.

The majority of D Troop quietly assembles in a half circle facing four used cargo pallets. The troop is not standing down, as essential combat mission continue. The bleak background is an olive line of general purpose tents, our new homes of only a few weeks.

There is little talk as 1st SGT Roland Petty assures Meese’s assembled comrades that the 25th Infantry Division Chaplain CPT Clarence A. Olzewski will be arriving shortly. MAJ James Peterson the new troop commander of just a few days arrives with LTC Hendry, commander of the 3rd Squadron 4th Cavalry Regiment. Although there is no semblance of a military formation all come to attention. 1st SGT Sergant Petty quietly reports and the troop is given a crisp “at ease.” A jeep pulls in behind the group with the division chaplain and his assistant.

1st SGT Petty leads them to the tiered discarded cargo pallets, the expedient, humble pulpit for the troop’s first memorial service. Although appearing starchily formal, LTC Hendry the squadron commander seems uneasy.

MeeceFuneral2

The only sound is the distinctive blade sounds of a hovering gunship in the distance, a near mute reminder to those present that we are in a war and it is continuing. Without a command, in a silent respectful ripple, all hats are removed.

The chaplain begins his service, “We are gathered here, before God, to honor our fallen comrade, SP4 Mac H. Meese.” Then those universal Christian words, The “Lord’s Prayer.” The chaplain’s clear voice resonates “Let us all pray.” In a clear reserved tone, all begin together.

The Tragedy of May 5th Unfolds

How this tragedy unfolded was a traumatic fiasco of visions, personalities, circumstances and perhaps common events. 1966 was heralded in history as, “The Americanization of the War in Vietnam.’ The United States began a tremendous acceleration in the buildup of military, specifically the new, airmobile power. There was high demand for U.S. Army aviators, so individual aviator training was expanded to meet the demand for helicopter pilots. Purging state side Army Airfields and the Army desk jobs of experienced aviators was done to accommodate the buildup.

The increased pace created an atmosphere of “no time can be wasted to fill the cockpit seat.” There was often a lack of individual and unit preparation for actual combat. There was a parallel demand for crew chiefs and a new need for door gunners. After arrival in the combat zone, the Army aviation units receiving new aircraft in country often required volunteers for door gunners. These young men volunteered, stepping forward from our D Troops Aero Rifle Platoon and the Squadron’s armored infantry troops to fill these positions. This Vietnam wide problem of training and experience was recognized by an informal policy of farming out helicopter gunship fire teams with the few combat experienced Army aviation units. D Troop was experiencing all of the above, plus being just on the cusp of an evolving leadership transition.

Mid-morning May 5, 1966, as I exited my Huey C model Hog after a fire support mission, CPT Francis Xavier "Frank" Delvy broke the news to me on the flight line. No details but, MAJ Nat O’Day leading another hog light fire team mission had received ground fire, and his door gunner was dead. I did not have an opportunity to gather more details as my fire team was immediately called for another mission. At the end of the day, while checking through operation, I inquired for more details. The most I could discern was “stupid mistake,” “flying in the dead man’s zone,” no details.

Before freshening up for chow, I once again hailed down CPT Delvy. Frank and I both had prior enlisted service and shared a mutual curiosity about why bad things happen. The fateful Hog was parked in its revetment. We walked the short distance in silence to check it out. The interior, including the windscreen, was truly an unsightly mess: that’s it, just not what one would want to write home to Mom about. I looked along the Huey’s belly and Frank climb to the top. There were only two bullet holes, both exiting the top of the fuselage above the door gunner position. Just two holes, evidence of the stark frightful odds of combat.

We asked the closest crew chief why no one was taking care of the Hog to get it mission ready. The terse answer “nobody will touch it”.

We both circled back to the troop command post (CP) tent. Seriously concerned, we cornered MAJ Gene Prosser our executive officer of a few days. It seemed to us that there was something bigger afoot, but we wanted to share with him that the Hog was not being cleaned of the physical carnage. We received another terse reply. “Thanks, MAJ Peterson and I are working on the issue.”

Finally a fire truck was positioned near the bloodied Hog. Then the rescue crew methodically hosed out the entire inside, not just the cargo area. All things considered, not exactly the normal way to prepare a helicopter for mission ready status.

The Fatal Event

CPT Tony Robinson had been flying wing for MAJ Nat O’Day and LT Herbert Caddell when Meese was shot. As he started relating the garish episode I sensed Tony’s anger and frustration. He began with a remark about, “Not having thirty days to write a unit SOP and squadron just started sending us combat missions.” Tony related that returning back to Cu Chi from their mission O’Day had been flying slow, about 80 knots, and low, around 500 feet above the ground. He indicated that he was extremely apprehensive flying as his wingman, trying to cover him at this low altitude along a row of hamlets. The potential sources of ground fire become rather endless. Those who had experienced in-country gunship exchange training recognized two better alternatives: fly on the deck at max speeds or stay well above 1,000 feet. The airspace in the middle is the “dead man’s zone.”

Tony related that he was landing first, already on final approach to the pad. MAJ O’Day was entering the pattern to downwind. He was over the “Playground”, east toward Highway One, at the edge of a sparse village. O’Day’s Hog drew ground fire. Still flying in the dead man zone, he circled back over the same spot. As he passed over, he again received ground fire, and SP4 Meece was hit; his unsecured M-60 machine gun fell to the ground. The crew chief did not throw smoke. The single shot through Meese’s helmet was fatal and extremely chaotic. The tragedy affected the entire inside of the Huey and the crew. The windscreen had to be cleared before they could land. The tower directed them to the hospital pad. A field ambulance was standing by and collected Meese’s’ remains and quickly departed.

At the Hog’s revetment the copilot LT Caddell was so upset that he briefly threatened MAJ O’day with his 45 pistol. He was physically pulled away, and then in resignation and hopelessness stormed away to the troop area. The crew chief flatly refused to touch anything and declined to get the aircraft interior cleaned up and followed in the copilots footsteps.

Comrades Coping

Following the Church service Captain Delvy generated a lot of compassionate healing and minds were turned toward the goodness of men. In his normal friendly energetic manner he made a collection, a little bit from everybody. Frank was universally admired by all grades for his Korean War experience, his cool approach to unnerving occasions and get-the-problem-solved attitude. He related later to me that many expressed a high level of frustration.

SP4 Meeces’ personal belongings were carefully sorted wrapped and forwarded to his family with an appropriate letter from MAJ Peterson. The lower rank and file officers and warrant officers did have a rash of chats about the lack of standardized acceptable fire team tactics, battle drills and yes “details” including rigging, so there was mutual understanding which the leadership prior to Major Peterson had not addressed at all.

We did not have a Standards Operating Procedures. No uniform drills. No standards had been set for crew chiefs and door gunners’ performance and duties administratively or tactically operations in combat or equipped and rigging in their Hueys. 1st Sergeant Petty with his old fashioned get-it-done administrative proficiency, was probably the single star in keeping things and troopers prepared, orderly and on time. He provided a daily example of senior NCO competence.

Monday Night Quarterbacks

There is a considerable difference between being dispatched on combat missions’ verses being led; that had escaped or was oblivious to the troop commander during our first month in Vietnam. There had been a number of fire teams farmed out to more experienced aviation units, Mayor Nat O’Day the Hog Weapons Section leader and MAJ Peter Moore the operations officer did not go on any of these short combat experience gaining ventures. My fire team trained with CPT George O’Grady’s Cobras of the 114th Aviation Company Airmobile. I was fully indoctrinated in aggressive low level reconnaissance, high angle rocket fire tactics and taking live prisoners. Their unwritten mission was the elimination of as many of their opponents on a daily basis as possible. Unless there was over whelming tactical necessity the Cobras did not use the low level approach in providing Air support.

Out of this initial problem, there began a new emphasis upon new standard air cavalry combat battle drill’s continuing to a short flurry of standards established as MAJ Peterson asserted his leadership and combat arms wisdom. There was however no time out to write the SOP that CPT Robinson had pointed out.

The root problem was not yet solved in the weapons section or troop operations. Captain Robinson confided to me that he felt increasing uncomfortable about the way fire team tactics were being executed by his fire team leader MAJ O’Day.

MAJ O’day‘s father had survived the WW II Batan Death March. From our personal conversations’ he was highly concerned about his own mortality in Vietnam. His concern was evidenced by prewritten letters, prepared in case of his death.

The Drama Continues

A short time later after SP4 Meece’s death, at the end of a series morning missions, CPT Robinson approached me from the flight line in furor. His Hog had more than a few bullet holes. He had just been repeatedly put on the hottest side of the fire team during a series of engagements and received more than his share of ground fire. He was adamant; he would not fly for or with O’Day again. Having carried my railroad tracks a few months longer than Tony I felt it necessary to immediately chat with our new Commanding Officer. Establishing his walk and chat style MAJ Peterson led a short walk and talk. I relayed the facts as I knew them. We had an emotionally troubled person leading the weapons section and emotions and tactics were very tenuous for good fire team effectiveness. LTC Peterson was aware of the problem and was watching O'Day.

Command Minute

A short time later, Major O’day packed up and a slick flew him to Saigon. He had a new job. About two short weeks later there was another personal change. MAJ Moore had also found a job in Saigon. Major Prosser had already moved from slick lead to Executive officer. Later, about three days after being promoted to Major I became the Troop operations officer. Tony Robinson now led the weapons’ section. Days later Mike Squires became a major and Slick lead. A new D Troop mini staff was now in place and remained unchanged for the next half year or more.

Systematic Climb to Excellence

It’s implausible to summarize in one paragraph the Centaurs steady continued evolution to a respected much admired small tactical unit. Under the everyday tutorials of Major James Peterson the entire body of Centaurs became united, molded into a skilled reliable combat team.

Robert “Bob” Graham, Centaur Hog driver and Operations officer 1966-67

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Other Notes:

CPT Tony Robinson wrote the following on pages 7 and 8 of his personal notebook on May 5, 1966.

Today SP4 Meece was killed in action. This is the first fatality in D Troop. The aircraft was flying at 100 to 200 feet. The pilot had not thrown smoke when fired on the first time and had gone back to mark the area again. The aircraft received three hits. One in the horizontal stabilizer, one in the fuselage behind the engine, and one into the side of the cargo compartment which hit Meece in the head.

I have never seen so much blood. The whole inside of the ship was splattered with blood. Travis McGee the Crew Chief threw up and everyone was in a state of shock.

I feel like this will shape up our unit. No one would deny that we needed more training. It is a shame that it took a human life to convince those stupid bastards at Squadron.

Mistakes made by crew:

  1. No smoke dropped when aircraft was fired on.
  2. Aircraft was flying in Deadman’s Zone.
  3. Confusion of sorts on if the aircraft had permission to fire.
  4. Gunner when hit dropped his weapon. Weapon should have been on a bungie cord. (it probably was)
  5. No one knew the radio frequency of the base aid station.


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1LT Carl Burns was assigned to inventory and secure Meese’s personal belongings. It was not usual that a troop officer do this, however it was usually handled by QM corps.

“As I approached Meese’s hooch with my orders I heard loud groans coming from the hooch,” said Burns. “Ah shit here comes a f-ing officer.” I enter and say Ok guys this really sucks but I have a job to do and would like your help. We gathered around Meese’s foot locker and I led a short prayer. We worked as a team and not according to regulations I permitted a few items to be left behind. I did receive a, “Thanks, Lieutenant.” The personal belongings were locked in Meese’s foot locker and stored under control of supply Sgt. Graziano. QM picked it up the next day.

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SP4 Herb Beasley, door gunner and hootchmate of Meece remembered that Meece was a graduate of the Shotgun Program like himself. It was door gunner training in combat with some harrowing experiences.

I often wondered if SP4 Mac Meece had some of these same experiences and what had he seen on his shotgun tour. I did know that he had been wounded and received a Purple Heart from his shotgun tour.

I don’t know when Mac transferred into D Troop. I only knew Mac for a few days. What I remember is he was a little quiet but mainly just a average guy like every one else. It was a somber day when two soldiers came into hooch #29. I can’t remember if they were from D Troop or some other unit. They wanted to know where Mac’s bunk and locker was located. Someone pointed and said, “It’s over there.” They packed everything up and left without saying a word. I believe at that point we realized Mac was gone and never coming back. We sat there with emptiness all around us. You could hear a pin drop.


SP5 Dean Smith was in Maintenance and remembers cleaning up the aircraft;

What I remember is that the helicopter came in low and fast and landed at the medivac. When the helicopter landed back at its pad people were washing it out with buckets of water. They would throw in a bucket of water on one side and it would come out red on the other. The blood had got caught up in the rotor wash and was all over the windscreen and instruments. The whole aircraft was real bloody and had the copper smell to it. I saw the bullet hole that had gone through Meece and was in the upper part of where the gunner sat.