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War Stories

My Tour - 1970-71

by Jim Hoag


JImI was in Fulda, West Germany in April 1970 when I got orders to transfer from the 14th Armored Cavalry to Cam Rahn Bay, South Vietnam. Like probably every other enlisted dude, we were simply sent to the Repo Depot to get our ultimate assignment. All I knew is I was a helicopter mechanic and could go anywhere. Of course, I knew virtually nothing about Vietnam other than what the Basic Training Drill Sgts taught us and what we supposedly learned at PQR Training at Ft Rucker, AL before shipping out to our next assignment. Mine was Fulda. PQR was a waste of time. All we did was wander through the Ft Rucker swamps with M-14 rifles loaded with blanks and a blank adapter on the end of the barrel. I did learn to watch for snakes as we killed at least 3 Eastern Diamondbacks and 1 Water Moccasin (aka Cottonmouth). I was well versed with Water Moccasins from fishing in West Virginia. Dang things were everywhere up there. The rattlers made noise, we'd take off the blank adapter and shoot them. That little wax wad leaving the barrel would shred a snakes head up to about 4 feet away. Other than learning to shoot a deadly snake with an Army rifle, I didn't learn much of anything else in PQR.

Anyway, got to Cam Rahn and spent 2 days there. The barracks were crammed with inbound troops waiting for further orders so finding a bunk was interesting. I didn't know one single person so it made no difference where I bunked at. Around 1300 of my 2nd day at Cam Rahn I got orders to go to some place called Cu Chi to a Cavalry unit. So 8 folks and I were driven over to the airfield and told to "get on that Shithook over there." We loaded onto the CH-47, the CE checked our orders, told the pilot all were going to Cu Chi and off we went. The CE was cool and let us all get up and wander around the deck while in flight. Vietnam certainly was a pretty country from 2,000 feet, but the heat and humidity was more than I was used to. It got pretty hot and humid in Pittsburgh during the summer, but this was way more oppressive.

Landed somewhere on the airfield at Cu Chi and were taken to a tent. Waited there till a jeep showed up and a SP4 found me and stowed my gear in the back seat. Off we went to D Troop, 3/4 Cav. I checked in at Ops, met the 1st Sgt and CO. The Scout Platoon Sgt happened to be there and asked me if I'd be willing to fly in a Loach. He lied about what they did, but because there were no UH-1s available, I agreed to become a door gunner/Crew Chief. I was then taken to the Scout hooch to meet whoever happened to be there and secure my gear.


I spent the 1st week learning to shoot the M-60 machine gun from a moving helicopter. I had to unlearn duck shooting in which one leads the target and learn to trail the target. That took some getting used to. I also had to learn to toss hand grenades from a moving helicopter. That was kinda tough if you wanted to hit something specific like a spider hole, but I sorta got it down okay. And then we were off on missions.

I remember thinking it was odd when I saw the sheet metal dude on the little cart (mule) driving around with his gas operated air drill unit and assorted colored cans of paint. The 1st time my tail boom received some bullet holes I learned 1st hand what that guys job was. He'd pull up, count holes and start patching if warranted. Lots of surreal things going on. I tell non-Vietnam folks about things like that and all I get are weird stares, deer in the headlight looks.

It was also interesting how one got a feel for every part of every weapon. Just dump everything into the PD-680 solvent half barrel and let it all soak for a while. Then pull out the assorted pieces, clean them off, oil them and put your M-60, M-16 and AK-47 back together like it was no big deal. In my mind's eye I can still field strip all 3 weapons.

I did the Scout function for about 2 months, but I was not a fan of getting shot at and had a nagging dream that the next flight would be my last either because I got killed or severely maimed. I talked with the Guns platoon Sgt and he said they had an opening for the oldest remaining Cobra of the original 75 shipped to Vietnam. Since I didn't know a whole lot about a Cobra, it didn't make any difference to me if it was the oldest or the newest. And I didn't have to fly unless invited to. That was sometime around late August 1970.


I took over AH-1G 67-15546. Having been minimally trained on the UH-1 at Ft Rucker, the Cobra wasn't a whole lot different other than the shape. Obviously the mounted rocket tubes on the stub wings and turret was different, but it didn't take long to get fairly well versed in working on them and keeping it flying.

You'd think I'd know more about them because of my 6 months in Germany, but I crewed an OH-13G over there, not a UH-1. I flew in the UH-1 a few times, especially when we'd go to Wildflicken to test the new TOW rocket concept or we'd fly the East/West German border looking for East German Army deserters or regular folks who had managed to sneak across the border. Out of 15 flights I was on, we picked up 2 East German soldiers who elected to desert together and 1 citizen who somehow managed to get through the minefields.

So the AH-1G was as new as any other helicopter to me. I guess I did okay as I never lost an aircraft due to mechanical failure. I'm sure my pilots appreciated that. I only remember 3 officers flying my aircraft more than once, Captain Don Phillips, CW2 McCoy and CWO Randy Jones. CWO Jones was assigned as the Aircraft Commander and it became his aircraft. Well, he thinks it was his, but in all actuality I lent it to him for a few hours a day to go fly cover for the Scouts. They also invited me to fly with them a couple of times. Guess the front seat guy was sick or taking a day off or something. Whatever the reason, I jumped at the chance. Except I was never, ever allowed to shoot the rockets. The minigun and 40mm grenade launcher were mine, but not the damn rockets. Not one single time did I ever fire rockets out of all the flights I went on and there were several. I was assigned to an Intermediate Maintenance unit years later at Ft Carson, CO as the Maintenance Platoon Sergeant and Mr. McCoy was there as a test pilot. We had some war story swaps that enthralled the troops who had never been to Vietnam.

After CWO Randy Jones was assigned to be the primary AC on 546 and being from Mississippi he wanted to paint a paddle wheeler boat on the dog house cowling. I figured what the heck, as long as he did all the painting. However, I did agree to help repaint the teeth as they were getting some severe cavities and a few misalignments.

Vung Tau

I don't remember exactly when it was, but it was decided that the oldest Cobra of the original 75 was to be the 1st (guinea pig) to get the tail rotor moved to the other side of the tail boom and an air conditioner unit installed. The Cobra apparently was a tad unstable and it was found that if the tail rotor was repositioned it would handle considerably better. This was all done at Ft Stewart, GA. Also, it was so damned hot in RVN the AC would make those long days more bearable. I was the CE on 67-15546 and it was the oldest in country of those original 75. The CO and my platoon leader told me I'd be going to Vung Tau for at least a week and working with the contractor (DynaLectron). I was to learn as much as possible about this whole thing so I could instruct others on how everything operated. So I packed my bag and off to Vung Tau we went.


We got checked in and the others took off after being told to come back in 7 days. We got the Cobra into their hangar and I started to strip it down. The lead for Dyna asked me what I was doing so I told him getting it ready for them to start working on it. He told me I was not to touch the aircraft and not to hang around while his people were working on it. When they were completed with the work, they would teach me what I needed to know, but that would be next week. I'm like, what the hell am I supposed to do for a week. They didn't know and they didn't care, just go away. Well now what? I don't know one single person in Vung Tau nor even where the hooch was I was supposed to stay at. One of the mechanics did come over to talk to me as he had recently gotten out of the Army and gone to work for Dyna. He told me that Vung Tau was like being in the states. The CO demanded his troops have a good haircut, starched jungle utilities and shined boots. I said I haven't shined my boots in several months, I go to the barber every 6 or 7 weeks and don't have any jungle utilities, only Nomex flight suits. This was not going to be a good thing and I had no idea how I was going to be able to avoid the CO for a week. Unbeknownst to me, an Australian Lieutenant had been listening in on the conversation. He came over and said if I wanted I could go with him and be an Aussie for a week. Seems at some point he and his mates had been getting their butts handed to them by the VC and an American Cav unit had helped them out of the mess. He figured they owed us and taking care of me and anyone else who showed up would be a type of pay back.

So I told the Dyna lead I'd check in daily to see how things were going, but not to look for me. He didn't seem to care either way, so off I went with the Aussie LT. I stayed at their hooch and we partied away the week. Victoria Bitters is some strong beer. I could not keep up with those guys no matter how hard I tried. Most days I didn't get up from the bunk till around 9. That was actually a great week since I didn't have to do a thing and got to party with some party animals all week. I wandered over to the hangar every day to at least look at what they were doing. On a large table were the blueprints for how to do all this. Most of the panels had been stripped off to run new piping from the doghouse area to the cockpit and they had to reposition the 90 degree gearbox. And then the week ended, I got my training on the new tail rotor and AC. The CO flew down in a Huey with the Cobra pilots, we all loaded up and off we went. Well, the Cobra flew back home and we flew to the USS Corpus Christi Bay/Bell helicopter parts ship anchored at Vung Tau.

corpuschristyThe thing that got me the most at the Corpus Christi were the armed guards on the deck of the ship. I asked them what they were doing. Down in the water were some guys swimming. One of the guards told me that they had dropped a big net in the water and it was supposed to keep any sharks from getting in there, but just in case, the guards were to sound an alert and shoot the sharks. I decided that going swimming would not be a good idea.

Anyway, when I got back to base the next task was training everyone on the new tail rotor and AC. Nothing mechanically had changed, just where the tail rotor was and how folks had to be especially careful in my revetment. I put a few warning signs up to help remind folks (and myself) so no one got their head chopped off. The biggest problem was the air conditioner. Seems after a couple of weeks there was no more adjusting the temperature. It was either full on or off. I remember flying in the front seat and getting hit with little snow balls. At ground level that felt great. At 3,000 feet it was a bit chilly. So I'd switch between forced air (heater) and air conditioner (ECU). Guessing the pilots did the same.

Camp Frenzell-JonesFJ

The unit packed up and moved from Cu Chi to Camp Frenzell-Jones at the east end of Long Binh. Luckily I got to fly down there instead of riding in a deuce and a half.

The worst part of Camp F-J was getting stuck on guard duty. We had a couple of guard towers at the end of the flight line facing the highway. And I'm guessing the town was a 1/4 mile away or so. So we'd go up the ladder and sit in that tower making commo checks every half hour or so. Talk about b-o-r-i-n-g! Camp F-J had to be one of the most secure areas in the whole country. Nothing ever happened there. Of course, it probably would have sucked canal water if we had actually come under attack, but we'll never know.

I vaguely remember trying to get the officers to agree to let us CEs start up the aircraft in the event we were already in the revetment when they got a call out to do an immediate take off. But alas, as far as I know that was never approved. We thought it would be a great idea so when the pilots got out there on a scramble the ship would be ready to go. All they had to do was strap in and go. There were no rules in any Army manual prohibiting that practice, at least not for another 4 years in the future.

Christmas in Saigon 1970

sisterAfter we moved to Camp Frenzell-Jones I was already the Crew Chief on Cobra 67-15546. Across from the barracks area was a curio shop where they sold local made trinkets and general run of the mill odds and ends indicative to Vietnam. The owner was a fairly young couple. His name was Thom. I can't remember the names of his wife, son or 2 sisters that worked there with him. When I had free time and wasn't flying or on the flight line you could find me at that shop. I was kinda sweet on the younger sister (Saigon Zoo pic) so would be over flirting with her and talking with Thom. He and his sisters had some money from his family and they were well educated. Each spoke at least 5 languages one of which was the Chinese Mandarin dialect. Quite often Gary Schmidt and/or Paul Coniff would be with me over there.

thom Just prior to Christmas 1970 Thom asked us if we would like to go with him and his family to the Cholon district of Saigon for an all day dinner. It was either that or go see the Bob Hope show probably sitting a half mile from the stage. We decided to go with him to dinner. I was told the Chinese were not fans of Americans in that part of Saigon, but because Thom spoke their language and had many friends there, we'd be okay.

So off we went to Cholon and ate dinner for the next 4 or 5 hours. Then we decided to go to the Saigon Zoo. Forty years has made me forget a lot of what we saw, but I do remember we had a good time. Probably much better than we would have looking at the show stage through binoculars. I heard there was around 20,000 troops there.

Lai Khe

And then we moved again to Lai Khe in 1971. All of 25th Infantry left country (or at least the colors did), but for whatever reason our Troop was left intact. We were simply renamed to F Troop (Air). The hooches were in the rubber trees so you can imagine the mosquito problem.

laundryThe hooch maids would wash the clothes and hang most of them just past the concentina wire closer to the airfield. Everytime a Cobra or Huey would hover by it both dried the clothes a little quicker and made them dirty again with all the dust and dirt flying through the air.

This was the 1st place I experienced more than one rocket attack. Seemed to be every other day like clockwork the VC would fire some 122mm rockets or 80mm (?) mortars into the compound area. I don't remember them ever hitting anything, but that choo-choo train flying overhead was unnerving just the same. This was also the 1st place we didn't have the regular shower building. Guns (Gun platoon crews) had a Conex at the end of the hooch and an old jet drop tank sitting above it. A tanker with non-potable water would fill the tank and the sun would warm the water. It was so damn hot that the luke warm water felt great.

dogs We all had dogs as pets. Somewhere along the line we acquired a few dogs that got mange. It got so bad a few of us decided to take the dogs over to the dump and shoot them to put them out of their misery and not infect the other dogs. Trouble was, no one could bring themselves to kill the dogs. "You shoot them, no you do it." Then some kid from the village on the other side of the compound and inside the wire came over and told us he would be glad to help us get rid of the dogs. That seemed like a capital idea. He took them off our hands. We knew they were going to kill and eat them, but at least we didn't have to see it or do the killing. I got a little nervous though when the kid looked at my pistol and told me his father had one just like it. I'm like, really? This is a Chinese Communist K-54 7.62mm semi-auto. How is it your Dad has one? He didn't know, but we slept a little lighter from then on.


And then I got orders to leave. That was the end of my Vietnam experience. I went to Ft Huachuca, AZ and the war was canceled a couple of years later.