First Person by Captain Thomas A. Pienta, U.S. Army (ret.)
November 27, 1968. It was Thanksgiving Day back home in Ohio, but it wasn’t Thanksgiving in Vietnam. It would prove to be one of the most harrowing days of my life–a day in which I became a casualty of war.
I was a 21-year-old first lieutenant, a helicopter pilot assigned to the 187th Assault Helicopter Company, which was based near the Black Virgin Mountain not far from the city of Tay Ninh. Our two “Slick” lift platoons were known as the “Crusaders.” The troop-carrying UH-1 had earned the nickname Slick because it carried no externally mounted weapons, only two M-60 machine guns, one on the port side manned by the crew chief and the other on the starboard side manned by a volunteer infantry door gunner. The remainder of the back seat was thus available to transport six U.S. (or 10 Vietnamese) infantrymen on combat assault missions.
That day we had already logged three hours of combat assault time, and we were sitting on the ground on “strip alert” at a small airstrip on a rubber plantation at Dau Tieng in War Zone C, northwest of Saigon. After several hours on the ground, our flight leader received the call that was to summon us on that fateful mission.
The flight leader gave us the signal to crank, and we began our ritual. The door gunners and crew chiefs donned their protective vests and helmets. Although Huey pilots sat in armored seats, many were killed or wounded by ground fire coming up through the chin bubble, the Plexiglas just below the pilot’s feet, which was positioned on the anti-torque controls, the pedals that controlled the tail rotor.
I then put on my flak jacket and stepped up into the pilot’s seat. The Crusaders flew with the aircraft commander in the left front seat and the pilot in the right front seat. Before securing the shoulder harness and lap belt, I would put my “chicken plate” inside my flak jacket against my chest. The chicken plate was a 22-pound piece of chest-shaped armor worn inside the flak jacket as added protection for vital organs. Some pilots sat on theirs. You had that option. I then slid forward another piece of armor, which was attached to the side of the armored seat and designed to give side and head protection. Once that was done, it was almost impossible to close your own door. Our gunners would then close our doors for us after we cranked up the engines. The pilot would have great difficulty opening the door again if he needed to exit the aircraft in case of fire. Within the next hour, I would find this out firsthand.
After going through a combat-expedited check list, I cranked the Lycoming turbine engine. With the engine run-up procedures completed, we put on our “brain buckets,” our ballistic protection helmets. It was absolutely essential that we adhere to the rules governing the wearing of flight safety equipment. It is one of the reasons I am alive today–scarred from second- and third-degree burns over 45 percent of my body, but alive. Unlike the hot dogs you see in the movies, we buckled our helmets. Without the chin strap secured, the helmet comes right off your head in a crash, and hair and ears are the first to go in a fire. We pulled the helmet’s visor down to protect our eyes from shrapnel before making the final approach to the landing zone (LZ). We wore our sleeves rolled down and pulled our flight gloves up over the cuffs of our fatigues or NOMEX (fire retardant) flight suits, if we had them. We wore leather boots because the nylon in jungle boots would melt right into your feet during a fire.
Had I not been wearing my flak jacket, I am sure 90 percent of my body would have been burned, thus leaving no skin to use for the grafting procedures, a very torturous procedure to say the least. In my case, the flak jacket is what saved my life. With 45-percent burns, you suffered but usually lived if you were lucky. With 90 percent burns, you suffered and died, as I saw many fellow Vietnam vets do on the burn ward at Brooke Army Hospital in Texas.
That particular day I was not wearing my two-piece NOMEX flight suit because I had worn it about a week. It stood in the corner of my hootch, and even the rats stayed away from it. For all the money spent on that war, they still only issued us one set of NOMEX. I really don’t think the NOMEX would have helped, however. When fire reaches the kinds of temperatures we had that day in that helicopter, I believe NOMEX breaks down and disintegrates. My aircraft commander was wearing NOMEX flight gloves, and he almost lost his left hand. I believe years later he did lose it after more than 60 plastic surgery operations. I was wearing gray kidskin-leather gloves, and although my hands were still severely burned, I’m glad I had them on. Asbestos was the only thing that would have prevented injury, but pilots couldn’t dress like bomb-disposal experts.
My aircraft commander, Warrant Officer Bob Trezona (in the helicopter, experience took precedence over rank), told me to pick up the helicopter out of the sandbag revetment. Those revetments were built by the Army to provide some protection for the Hueys should we be hit with rockets or mortars while waiting strip alert. I glanced back at our crew chief, Specialist James Brady, who gave me thumbs up. We were on our way.
Although I had been in-country only seven weeks, I had logged 153 hours of flight time, most of which was combat assault time, and I was now addicted to the adrenaline flow. Trezona was just back from rest-and-recuperation leave, and I believe he requested that I be his pilot, since I had not been scheduled on the chalkboard the night before to fly that day. I felt proud that I had been accepted by the more experienced pilots in the unit. Trezona had been with the Crusaders more than eight months and was one of the unit’s finest pilots. He taught me a great deal about “air sense.” I loved flying with Trezona not only because of his skills but also because of his ability to convey a feeling of calmness in the cockpit. Brady and Trezona were both about 23 years old, had been in-country the same amount of time and were good friends. They had just been issued a brand-new Huey with about 110 total hours of flight time. Trezona felt the chopper wasn’t developing the power that it should have had, but he was still pretty happy with it.
Leaving Dau Tieng in the afternoon, our first platoon formed into an echelon left, and we headed for the pick-up zone to load up with soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division. During flight we switched to trail formation and landed at the designated area, where the infantrymen got aboard. Each time I glanced back at their faces it occurred to me that this war was being fought by the cream of America’s youth–18-, 19-, 20-year-old infantrymen carrying M-16s, grenade launchers, machine guns and various other weapons. These brave infantrymen will always have my utmost respect. I had been an infantry rifleman for almost two years before graduating from officer candidate school, and I knew these men not only fought the enemy but also faced the elements 24 hours a day. As aircrewmen we were constantly exposed to enemy fire, but at least we could take a shower most every night, drink some whiskey, and sleep in a bunk with a Colt .38 as a pillow.
Loaded with six “Electric Strawberries” (as the 25th Infantry Division troops were known), our Huey lifted off and headed for the designated rendezvous point (RP) to form up with the second Crusader lift platoon. As we orbited over the RP at 1,500 feet, we could see the LZ in the distance being pounded with artillery. We hoped that those 105mm and 155mm high-explosive rounds were finding their targets. Our command and control (C&C) ship then ordered us to fly into a trail formation, with the second platoon in the lead and the first platoon following.
As we flew into our assault formation, my mind raced back to two weeks earlier, when I had pulled bunker line officer duty for the perimeter of Tay Ninh base camp. In the command bunker with me that night on guard duty had been Jim Brady, the crew chief. We had talked about our mothers and fathers, our brothers and sisters, and our feelings about the war.
I felt very close to him after that night. We were young and brave, and we loved our country even though we knew that some American people, in their stupidity, were spitting on soldiers who were returning to San Francisco from Vietnam.
My mind switched back to business as we approached the LZ. I glanced back at Brady, who was manning the portside M-60, and he smiled–I think to reassure me that I was doing a decent job of flying his Huey. I thought what brave men these gunners were. They were completely exposed to hostile fire, since they rode in seats facing out the side of the Huey. They did not have an armored seat and had only their armored vests to protect them.
Ron Timberlake, flight lead for the first platoon, was flying Chalk Six and ordered us into a heavy echelon left. We made a sweeping left turn onto our final approach path as we heard our commander in the C&C ship say “last round on the ground,” meaning the artillery preparation was finished.
The formation was pretty strung out as I glanced at the airspeed indicator, which read 90 knots. I nosed it over with the cyclic (the control stick between the pilot’s legs). With my left hand I pulled some more collective pitch while gently adding some left pedal to control the yaw of the aircraft. As the helicopter reached about 110 knots, we closed up the formation. The fully loaded Huey shuddered and vibrated violently, but that was standard for combat assaults. Our unit flew in such tight formation on a short final approach that you could read the name tags of the men in the ship you were flying in formation with.
Flying on either side of the slick formation in oval race-track patterns, the “Rat Pack” gunship platoon laid in minigun fire and 2.75-inch rockets. We were flying into the midst of a battalion-size or larger North Vietnamese Army (NVA) unit, and all hell was breaking loose around us. We ordered our gunners to engage the enemy with full suppressive fire, left and right. My heart pounded furiously as I struggled to control the Huey. In the helicopter we monitored a VHF (very high frequency) radio used to talk to the gun platoon, a UHF (ultra high frequency) radio to talk to our C&C ship, and an FM radio to communicate between Hueys in the platoon. We also used an intercom to communicate among crew members within the helicopter. We were busy, to say the least.
Over the FM radio, the pilots of the first aircraft entering the LZ transmitted, “Chalk Three receiving fire.” “Chalk” was the term used to designate your position in the flight. You did not break formation. You just sucked it up and flew into the bowels of the Grim Reaper. The last transmission I heard was, “Chalk Four receiving fire.” The choppers were being wracked with intense machine-gun fire, 51mm anti-aircraft fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The “pucker factor” gauge was in the red and climbing. We continued our approach into the raging LZ in our trail helicopter. It was trail’s job to wait until every Huey made it out of the LZ and then radio that the LZ was clear. I was flying an H-model Huey, and because the LZ was filled with 10- to 15-foot-tall baby rubber trees, which were hard to see until I was right on top of them, I had to pick my spot and could not come directly to the ground as I normally did. Snaring a tail rotor in the trees could kill you just as easily as a machine-gun.
We were just coming out of translational lift–the point at which a helicopter stops flying and starts hovering–when a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) slammed into our Huey. It apparently hit in the left fuel cell just aft of Brady’s gun well. I believe he died instantly. A Pfc Hoppe, on the right door gun, was blown out of the ship.
Brady’s death still pains me deeply. He is now known on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (“the Wall”) as James Gregory Brady 28jan48 27nov68 Sacramento Ca. panel 38W line 71. For 20 years I lived with the thought that all the infantry aboard had died. I was finally told years later that none of the 25th Infantry Division troops who were aboard the chopper had been killed.
We were completely engulfed in flames. The JP-4 fuel and magnesium combined to make a lethal fire. The cliché about not hearing the one that gets you was true in my case. I first thought that a fragmentation grenade had inadvertently been dropped in our ship by one of the infantrymen, but not so. It seemed as if there was a big whoosh, similar to the effect a Zippo lighter has after being freshly overfilled and lit, or the whoosh of a propane grill lighting after the gas has been left on too long before the igniter is applied. All the oxygen in the Huey was immediately sucked up by the flames, and we were on fire.
I stayed on the controls; the Huey fell about 15 feet to the ground and remained upright. I couldn’t see or breathe, but I knew I had to exit the aircraft. I unbuckled the shoulder harness and lap belt and stood up from the armored seat, knowing it would be impossible to exit through my door. As I stood up, the collapsing rotor system crashed into my helmet and knocked me sideways–at least I believe that’s what hit me. It smashed me to the left across the radio console into a sort of side-straddle position across the other pilot’s seat. That’s when I knew that Bob Trezona had made it out of the Huey.
Months later in the hospital, Trezona told me he stood up and fell straight forward out of the helicopter. It had pretty much disintegrated when the RPG hit. Lying across the aircraft commander’s armored seat, I truly thought I was going to die. I could no longer hold my breath and was sucking heat into my lungs; I had to try again to escape. This time I successfully stood up and went between the two pilot seats and out the cargo door just as we had been taught in flight school. As I broke free of the flames, all I could think of was that there was going to be another explosion. Survival instinct and training were controlling my body. The helicopter had done all the exploding it was ever going to do. It was just blazing out of control. I ran about 20 yards and rolled on the ground to extinguish the flames on my burning body.
I put my hands in a puddle of water to cool them off–the only severe pain I was feeling at the time was in my hands. My fingers were pencil thin after being cooked inside the leather gloves, but at least they were still there. The leather had burned itself onto my hands. My flak jacket was still burning, and I think I removed it. The foam padding on the chin strap and the neck strap of my flight helmet was burning my face and neck; I did feel that pain and I flipped off the helmet.
By now, my arms and legs didn’t want to do a whole lot of bending, and the pain was gone because third-degree burns kill the nerve endings–until they start cutting the dead skin off in the hospital; then the pain is tortuous. I ran farther from the burning wreckage and, unknowingly, was running closer to the NVA gun positions. Fortunately, the billowing black smoke from the Huey must have momentarily prevented the NVA from finishing us off with small-arms fire. They were still shooting, but they couldn’t pinpoint a target. Or maybe they wanted to wait and capture us.
Our gunships then laid down the last of their minigun ammunition and rockets. Years later, I talked to Warrant Officer Jim Rohde, who was flying the gunship that expended its ammunition seemingly at my feet. He told me they couldn’t see anything around our helicopter because of the smoke, but they had an idea where we might be. He could have been no more than 30 feet off the deck. I saw him bank abruptly to the left as he passed over me about 20 yards to my left. In my dreams I can still hear the deafening roar of his minigun as he expended the rest of his ammunition while I stumbled around on the ground.
I thank Rohde with all my heart for what he did next. He stayed on station, continuing his gun runs as if he had more ammunition, while the other gunships returned to the closest place to rearm. I firmly believe that by making those unarmed gun runs Rohde kept the enemy soldiers’ heads down and prevented the NVA from venturing out to capture us. Only because of the expertise and bravery of the “Rat Pack” pilots was I not killed by friendly fire.
I now knew which way to run, back toward my helicopter. But now I realized that my arms and legs were burnt black. Everything now seemed to happen in slow motion, as if I could see each and every frame of a projected film. I guess I was now in the proverbial “bubble,” where sound no longer seems to exist and the will to live requires your body to continue the struggle for survival. I came upon a group of wounded and dead infantry soldiers, some of whom may have been in my helicopter, and told them to remove my .38 from my holster and use it if necessary, because my hands were useless. I remember them just staring at me as though I was a monster who had emerged from the smoke. I glanced to my left, and the next frame of the film was Trezona stumbling, his face burnt black and his helmet still on his head. I screamed his name and saw that he was working his way toward a Huey waiting on the ground. It was Chalk Six. Nineteen-year-old Warrant Officer Ron Timberlake was the aircraft commander of that helicopter. Timberlake, flight lead for the first platoon, was Trezona’s hooch-mate. I don’t know who his pilot was but wish I did, so that I could thank him for his bravery. Timberlake did not hear us call that the LZ was clear, and saw a ship burning on the ground. Nothing was going to stop him from coming back into the jaws of death to attempt to rescue us. Chalk Six’s pilot came in 90 degrees off our original approach axis, landed and faced the enemy battalions. Timberlake and his crew sat on the ground waiting as no less than 10 wounded Americans piled into his helicopter. The NVA fired RPG after RPG at Chalk Six and us during that time as well as intense small-arms fire. Timberlake noticed the RPG gunner up in a tree about 75 yards away at his 2 o’clock–with his assistant on the ground handing him up rockets. Timberlake told his gunner Nelson to kill them. Nelson’s M-60 riddled them, and they got what they deserved. Timberlake told me about that years later, and I have to say it made me feel better to know that the guys who had probably killed Brady and maimed Bob Trezona and me were dead.
I saw Trezona on the rescue helicopter and piled on top of the group already aboard. I think I was about the last aboard. I could see Timberlake’s instrument panel glowing red and knew the Huey was undergoing major damage. He then lifted that fragile but oh-so-strong-and-beautiful Huey out of the LZ while we were again racked with machine-gun fire.
The chopper had flown a short distance when I noticed Timberlake’s exhaust gas temperature rapidly decrease, and his engine quit. Timberlake began autorotation–the much-practiced, intricate maneuver to land a helicopter without an engine. I can tell you that what he was doing is very difficult under any circumstances. His autorotation and landing was the greatest power-off maneuver I have ever witnessed, especially since this was a low-level autorotation, which gives you no time at all to think about what you are doing.
He flew his bird to a velvety-soft landing in a rice paddy with more than 14 Americans aboard. We then set up a perimeter around his Huey, and before the rotor blades stopped turning, another Slick swooped in to pick us up. Warrant Officer Jack Flukinger was the aircraft commander, and his pilot was Lieutenant Al Barret. After Flukinger’s Huey landed, his gunners helped me slosh through some muddy rice paddies to his helicopter. I was pretty deep in shock, I guess, but still functioning pretty well.
I remember being in the back of the third helicopter I had been in that day and looking at Flukinger and Barret and shaking my head in disbelief. My thoughts were of my parents and how upset they were going to be to find out I had been burned, and I felt sad for them.
The whole time at Tay Ninh I had been writing home telling them how safe it was flying and about all the safety equipment we wore to keep us alive. I was mad because I knew my flying days were over and I had only been in Vietnam a short time. But to hell with ambition, I was alive!
As we flew toward Tay Ninh and the field hospital, my vision became very hazy, and everything appeared to be smoky. I knew I was seriously burned, but I did not know how bad my condition was. We landed at Tay Ninh medevac pad and were met by medics and nurses. I elected to walk into the field hospital myself and did so escorted by medical personnel. I lay down on a cot and heard Trezona ask the doctor if we were going to die, and then I became very concerned.
I remember some pilots from our unit coming in to talk to us and telling us not to worry, because the Viet Cong had ambushed the convoy bringing us turkeys, and no one was going to have a happy Thanksgiving anyway. The last thing I remember for a month, except for short periods of pain and consciousness, was the doctors cutting off my flight gloves and watching the flesh on my hands being removed with them. They cut off my officer candidate school ring and my watch, and that was the last I saw of them. I then told the doctors I couldn’t see anymore, and they put patches over my eyes. By then I really was scared. “Please God, don’t let me be blind,” I prayed. Sweet morphine then took me away to the land of hallucinations. My war with the Grim Reaper had just begun.
A member of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, Thomas A. Pienta now works for the U.S. Postal Service in Florida. Suggestions for further reading: Low Level Hell, by Hugh L. Mills, Jr. (Presidio); Hunter-Killer Squadron, edited by Michael Brennan (Pocket Books); and Apache Sunrise, by Jerome M. Boyle (Ivy Books).
THE AFTERMATH FOR TOM PIENTA
First Person by Captain Thomas A. Pienta, U.S. Army (ret.) I was medevaced by helicopter to Saigon, then to Japan by Air Force jet, and then to Brooke General Hospital at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. I was hospitalized for 18 months, a tour and a half. To date, I have undergone 14 major operations involving skin grafting and internal surgery.
I was later told that the battle at the landing zone raged on into the night and the next day, with many more members of the 187th Assault Helicopter Company “Crusaders” killed or wounded. A Huey flying a night flare mission over the landing zone where I was shot down was hit by enemy fire at about 1,000 feet, igniting all the flares in the back; it was said they went straight in from about 700 feet, and all were killed. Warrant Officer Allen Duneman was the aircraft commander, and 1st Lt. August Ritzau was the pilot. Ritzau had already been wounded once that day when he took an AK47 round in the hand on the same insertion in which I was shot down. He elected to fly that night anyway.
Ron Timberlake was awarded the Silver Star and his pilot was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions. I was never told of the gallantry awards that were given to the chiefs and gunners. I was awarded the Purple Heart. As far as I’m concerned, Timberlake and his crew should be awarded the Medal of Honor for their gallantry. Timberlake finished his tour of duty with the Crusaders and returned in 1972 as a AH-1G Cobra gunship pilot with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), which just so happened to be operating in the Tay Ninh province. I believe he returned to avenge those Crusaders who had been killed and wounded. Knowing Timberlake, I am sure he hunted Communists in his Cobra with the ferocity of the warrior he was and still is. He retired in the mid-1980s as a major.
I eventually returned to duty and flight status. I needed to fly those beautiful Hueys again to prove something to myself.
After making the rank of captain, I said goodbye to my Army career and returned to civilian life with a VA disability retirement.
The following picture was taken in May, 2013 outside of St. Pete’s Beach when I met Tomy Pienta for the first time. My friend, Ken Tennis is on the left, me in the middle and Tomy on the right.
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