Rattler One-Seven puts you in the helicopter seat, to see the war in Vietnam through the eyes of an inexperienced pilot as he transforms himself into a seasoned combat veteran.
When Chuck Gross left for Vietnam in 1970, he was a nineteen-year-old Army helicopter pilot fresh out of flight school. He spent his entire Vietnam tour with the 71st Assault Helicopter Company flying UH-1 Huey helicopters. Soon after the war he wrote down his adventures, while his memory was still fresh with the events. Rattler One-Seven (his call sign) is written as Gross experienced it, using these notes along with letters written home to accurately preserve the mindset he had while in Vietnam.
During his tour Gross flew Special Operations for the MACV-SOG, inserting secret teams into Laos. He notes that Americans were left behind alive in Laos, when official policy at home stated that U.S. forces were never there.
He also participated in Lam Son 719, a misbegotten attempt by the ARVN to assault and cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail with U.S. Army helicopter support. It was the largest airmobile campaign of the war and marked the first time that the helicopter was used in mid-intensity combat, with disastrous results. Pilots in their early twenties, with young gunners and a Huey full of ARVN soldiers, took on experienced North Vietnamese antiaircraft artillery gunners, with no meaningful intelligence briefings or a rational plan on how to cut the Trail. More than one hundred helicopters were lost and more than six hundred aircraft sustained combat damage. Gross himself was shot down and left in the field during one assault. Rattler One-Seven will appeal to those interested in the Vietnam War and to all armed forces, especially aviators, who have served for their country.
About the Author
Chuck Gross was an Army helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War from May 1970 through May 1971. He logged more than 1,200 hours of combat flying and achieved Senior Aircraft Commander status. After the war he became a commercial pilot and recently retired from American Airlines as a 767/757 Captain. Gross is also an instructor in the martial arts and has published a self-defense video course. He lives in Gallatin, Tennessee.
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Rattler One-SevenA Vietnam Helicopter Pilot's War Story
By Chuck Gross
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2006 Chuck Gross
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFirst Assignment
It all started for me the summer of 1968. I had just graduated from Cooper High School in New Hope, Minnesota. I had decided against going to college. My mom suggested that I go into the service and get some training in electronics. Since I really had no clue as to what I wanted to do, the idea sounded good to me. My father had been an electrician before he passed away. The week after graduation, I went downtown to the U.S. Navy recruiter's office, where I took the usual battery of tests. When I had completed the tests, I was told to have a seat in the waiting room.
I was sitting in the waiting room with several other young men, while my tests were being graded, when a petty officer walked in and started yelling and screaming orders at us. He was cussing at us to stand up and get into formation. When I did not respond to his orders, he unleashed a mouthful of vulgarities at me. There was a little confusion as to who was who. The other men were new recruits who had just been given their oath, and he thought I was one of them. I have to admit, I was not used to all that vulgarity being directed at me, and it kind of shocked me. Once we got theconfusion straightened out, he took his new recruits and lined them up. Yelling obscenities, he marched them out of the waiting room and down the corridor into their new life.
I was starting to have doubts about this navy idea when the recruiter called me into his office. He told me to take a seat. He then proceeded to tell me that I qualified for any navy school that I wanted, except electronics. He said my tests indicated that I had no aptitude for electronics. As I sat there listening to the recruiter, I decided quickly that I would kiss the idea about going into the navy goodbye. I told him thanks, but no thanks, and left. I was disappointed and not sure what I should do next. I had told all my friends, before graduation, that I was going in the navy and suddenly my plans were shot.
As I walked down the hallway towards the stairwell, I noticed a sign for the Army Recruiting Office. I decided to poke my head through the door. There was a sergeant sitting behind a desk and he said, "What can I do for you?"
I had a classmate in school whose father was an airline pilot. He had told us about his dad's job, and I thought that it sounded pretty cool. A friend of one of my brothers had a brother who had been flying helicopters in Vietnam for the army. Listening to Tom describe some of the letters that his brother had written home about his war experiences sounded exciting. So from out of nowhere, I told this sergeant, "I want to be an army pilot."
He told me to come in. He had me take a battery of tests similar to the tests I had just taken at the Navy Recruiting Office. After the sergeant reviewed my results, he told me I qualified to take the warrant officer (WO) written flight test. There was one problem. I was too young. I had to be eighteen to take the test and I was only seventeen. I set up an appointment to take the test on August 15, which was my eighteenth birthday. Within just a few hours, my life had taken a new direction.
Early on the morning of August 15, I got up and drove down to take the written flight test. I was anxious because I had only been in an airplane once as a twelve year old for a short ten-minute ride. I had no knowledge of how an airplane flew or how to interpret what the flight instruments were telling me in the test that I took. Seven of us took the test that morning. After completing the test, we were sent to a waiting room to wait for our grades.
Once the grading was completed, the recruiter started calling names one at a time. When a name was called, that individual would get up and go into the sergeant's office, and they would close the door. Then the rest of us would wait until he left and the next name was called. When the recruiter called the sixth name, I was the only one left in the waiting room. I began to worry. It had been a tough test and, with my lack of aviation knowledge, I knew that I had guessed at several of the answers.
After what seemed like hours, my name was called. I got up and walked into the sergeant's office. He told me to have a seat. As he reviewed my tests, he shook his head from side to side. He then told me that I didn't pass the test. He explained that I needed a score of 250 to pass and I had only gotten 248. He then asked me, "How bad do you want this?" I emphasized, "I've really been counting on doing this!" He looked at me and then looked down at my results, tapping his pencil on the desk. Then after a long silent moment, he said, "Hell, they're going to teach you everything you need to know in flight school anyways." I watched as he took his pencil and erased the 248 and wrote down 251. I thought to myself, "What a birthday present!" I told him thanks, and then we scheduled an appointment for the board. We were required to interview in front of a board of officers before being accepted into the Warrant Officer Rotary Wing Aviation Course (WORWAC). Warrant officer was a rank below the commissioned officers but above the enlisted grades. There were four grades of warrant officer starting with WO1 through WO4, with WO4 being the highest. Warrant officers were entitled to a salute from the enlisted personnel and called "mister."
I can still hear the officer in charge of the interview for WORWAC. At the conclusion of the interview he stated, "You realize that upon completion of the course, you will receive orders to Vietnam." I stated, "Yes, I do." What was the Vietnam conflict to me? I was only eighteen years old and had never been out of the States. I had seen news clippings of the war on TV so it was nothing new to me. The news was always showing footage of the fighting and killing. With the rebellions, protests, riots, violence and crime in the early and mid-1960s, it had become a way of life. Besides, I thought the war would be over by the time I had completed my training.
My military career started on November 25, 1968. I was eager for the adventure and excitement of combat that I had seen so many times at the movies and on television, with all the heroics and glories of victory. But I was soon to find out the other qualities of war that the movies and tube had failed to show. I completed flight school on November 4, 1969, at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia. I received my wings and graduated as a warrant officer in the United States Army. I had an all too short tour of duty at Fort Carson, Colorado, and then received my orders to Vietnam. My departure was scheduled for May 15, 1970. I would be leaving the country from McCord Air Force Base near Seattle, Washington.
The sun was breaking over the horizon when my wake-up call came. It was the fifteenth. I had flown into Seattle the night before. I checked into the Hilton and went to bed early so that I would be fresh for the day. This was one day that I did not want to be late. I grabbed a cab for the airport where I could catch a bus that ran to McCord. It was during this bus ride that I started feeling excited about the future and what it had in store for me. But along with this feeling of excitement, there was another feeling that radiated from deep down inside of my bones. It felt like a heavy weight anchored in my lower stomach. I had this same type of feeling in my high school speech class, when I would stand up in front of the class and speak.
Upon arriving at McCord Air Force Base, I immediately checked into the transportation terminal. The time was approaching 1000 hours, but there were few people in sight. I found a bench to rest on and began what was a long and boring wait.
As I sat there thinking, the same thought kept running through my mind. "If only it was a year from now!" The standard length of tour for Vietnam was one year. One year is a very long period of time when you are only nineteen. I thought to myself, "A year from now, it will be the happiest day of my life!"
Around noon, I rode over to the Officer's Club and got a bite to eat. When I got back from lunch, more soldiers were starting to fill the terminal. As I scanned the room, I could tell that they were not a happy bunch. It was not long before one of the other warrant officer pilots and I had started a conversation. He introduced himself as Buddy Howard. He was born and raised in Tennessee, as his heavy accent indicated. Being from the midwest, there was quite a difference in the way we spoke. In the army, when we would meet a fellow aviator, the conversation would always get around to which flight class we graduated from. I found out Buddy had been in the same class as my good friend Dave Warman, with whom I had been stationed in Colorado. Our mutual friendship with Dave sparked an almost instant comradeship as we talked and got to know each other. Dave and Buddy had been quite close in flight school. Dave had received his orders to Nam a couple of weeks after I had, so I was not able to contact him again after leaving Colorado. A few hours later Bob, a good friend of Buddy's, arrived, and the three of us hit it right off. This new friendship was going to help immensely during the next few days.
Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, we watched other soldiers depart and return, but our flight did not take off until later that night. It was around 2200 hours that night that they finally lined us up to board the aircraft. The aircraft was a Seaboard World 707. This was the aircraft that was going to take us to a world so different from the one we knew. It was a long, tiring flight, which lasted over eighteen hours. The Boeing 707 made only two fuel stops in Anchorage, Alaska, and then in Okinawa. Since I had gotten up early that morning, I was tired and tried to sleep on the plane. The little rest I did manage to get on the plane was not very refreshing.
I could feel my body's temperature rise and my heartbeat quicken when the captain's voice came over the intercom announcing the beginning of our descent into Cam Ranh Bay. Not really knowing what to expect, everyone on the aircraft was stretching and leaning to get their first look at what was going to be our new home. Our landing at Cam Ranh Bay was uneventful. Cam Ranh Bay was a secured Air Force Base. The most excitement they ever experienced was an occasional rocket or sapper attack. Cam Ranh Bay was the main entry and departure point for U.S. forces. Here the soldiers were processed into the country and sent to their unit of assignment.
It had been Friday when my day had started, and I think it was Sunday when we finally arrived. I would find out after arriving at my unit that all the days were going to be the same. I would never really be sure what day of the week it would be, but I would always know the date. There would always be someone counting down the days to his date of estimated return from overseas (DEROS). The only special days during my tour were going to be Christmas, New Years, and my DEROS date. The DEROS date was the most important. It was the date that you lived for the whole year, the day that you would get to go home.
We were met at the plane by an army bus. As I walked down the steps from the aircraft to the tarmac, the heat was the first thing that got my attention. It had been the first blossoming of spring when I had left Minnesota and now, suddenly, this hot humid air was engulfing my lungs. It would take quite a few days for my body to adjust to the heat and humidity. Then there was that awful smell! It was something that I had never smelled before. The smell was a combination of urine, gunpowder, oriental food, and garbage. Upon entering the army bus, we noticed bars on the windows. The bars were not to keep us from getting out, but to stop someone from throwing grenades or explosives into the bus.
Our bus took us from the airfield over to the processing center. We would end up spending a day and a half at the processing center waiting for our assignments. This day and a half wait was a very hard and emotional time for us. We were all eager to get to our units. The inactivity and the sitting around with nothing to do to pass the time made it worse. Bob, Buddy, and I stayed together during this time, trying to catch up on our sleep. It had been a long couple of days and we were tired. When I woke up, I went over to the showers to wash. I was standing in the shower when a couple of Vietnamese women walked in and started washing clothes. I thought this was kind of strange to have grown women washing clothes while I stood there stark naked, but they did not seem to mind, so neither did I.
For some unexplained reason, it was always the middle of the night when we did our traveling. It was 0200 hours, and we were standing in line to load onto a C-130 transport. Our new destination was Chu Lai. Chu Lai was located in I Corps and was the home of the Americal Division, an area that was becoming well known back in the states due to the My Lai Massacre. The Americal Division was formed in 1942 during World War II in New Caledonia. It is said that the people of Caledonia liked the Americans so much that the name was formed by a contraction of AMERIcans and CALedonia. When the division was reactivated during Vietnam it was designated the 23rd Infantry Division. Chu Lai would become my home for the next eight months. It was early morning by the time we landed at Chu Lai and exited the C-130. Chu Lai looked quite different from Cam Ranh Bay. Looking off to the west, I could see a barren, brownish, massive ridge running north and south along the skirts of the base. Over to the east, paralleling the ridge was the coast of the South China Sea. That first sighting of the barren ridge would stay in my mind for years to come. Why? I would never really know. After unloading the aircraft, we were taken by jeep to another reception center set up by the Americal Division. This was an indoctrination school in which all new arrivals into this division were required to attend. We were to spend the next five days learning about the different aspects of Vietnam.
These few days were some of the best days of my tour. At this point, we were not really active in the war and we were eager to move on, not knowing what lay in store for us. We were taken to our quarters. Built with stick lumber, they had plywood floors with tin roofs, and screens running from the roof halfway down the sides to join the plywood knee wall. Inside these so-called barracks were double bunks lined up on both sides of the building. Everyone in Vietnam called this type of building a hootch. The area around this reception center was very sandy and hilly due to it being situated right off the South China Beach. Bob, Buddy, and I were assigned the same hootch. We had a briefing scheduled for the officers later in the afternoon. Since we had been up all night, we spent the rest of the morning catching up on our sleep.
Excerpted from Rattler One-Seven by Chuck Gross Copyright © 2006 by Chuck Gross. Excerpted by permission.
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