My guest author today is Michael Whatley, who is a fellow WordPress blogger and manages a personal website: He went to Vietnam in 1970 as a grunt assigned to the 101st Airborne, and spent time there as a dog handler. After completing his service obligation, he spent the next eighteen years as a professional Network level TV News cameraman. He is also an amateur ham radio operator and publishes articles about his hobby on his website. Michael also has posts related to his military experience – these are two of which I combined in this article.
“…I joined the Army in 1969. The Army gives you a battery of tests to figure out how to best use you. One of the questions was: “Which would you rather do? Go to the Opera? OR go camp out in Yellowstone National Park?
Of course, I answered the Camp out!! “Yep.., he’s infantry material.” I finished at the top of my class in Basic Training, and in the top 2 % Army Wide in Infantry training. I took Basic at Ft. Bliss – went to Infantry School at Ft. Lewis and Scout Dog Handler training at Ft. Benning. I landed in the 101st Airborne Division (I Corps) Vietnam 70-71. Vietnam was a defining experience for those of us who went, I’m glad I did. Combat Infantry. At the tip of the spear. The ONLY place to be. (I’m the recruit on the bottom right next to the DI)
Scout Dog Teams walked on “Point‘ during Infantry jungle patrols. The “Point” and his Scout Dog, (worked off leash) and followed closely by the “slack” man. This should be an experienced soldier to “back-up” the “Point” team. NO CHERRIES! My unit only had 3 CAR-15‘s (which were the shorter/telescoping stock M-16). The CAR-15’s were issued to the 3 senior field operations soldiers in the unit, I didn’t get mine until sometime in early spring of 71.
The photo above shows me with an M-16 obviously. I carried twenty-three magazines: the magazine in my weapon had a second one taped to it upside down for quick reloading; I’d eject the duo, flip it over and then quickly reinsert the second magazine. Four more were carried in a pouch on my ammo belt, and three in one of the outer pouches of my Rucksack. The remaining magazines were stored in two OD green cotton cloth bandoliers across my chest. Grenades were optional for dog handlers! During my first few months in the field I carried four, straightened the pins, and taped the spoon down so it wouldn’t blow up if a branch pulled out the pin while humping through the heavy brush. I eventually cut back to only two M-26 grenades to reduce the weight. I carried 18 quarts of water – at 2 lbs. per quart, that was 36 lbs. alone just in water; dogs dehydrate way faster than a man. A Dog Handler was never sure of his patrols being near any jungle streams, so I always carried a max load and cut back if there was an adequate supply of streams nearby. The Song Bo River out near the Ashau Valley was magnificent.
My unit was the 42nd Infantry Platoon Scout Dog / 101St Airborne Division
If you ZOOM in on the Chopper Photo above, you’ll see my Scout Dog “Argo” with his head laying on my leg. He loved to watch the ground as we flew. Sometimes his saliva would blow back on the door gunner and everybody would laugh. “Argo” and I walked “Point” in the Jungle. I’m alive today because of that small ( 58 lb. Shepard)…the best “Combat Dog” ever! The author of this website has added an interesting documentary about these fantastic War Dogs at the end of this post. Don’t miss it!
Among my most coveted awards in the US Army:
The Combat Infantry Badge.
The Bronze Star. No Handshake. No Ceremony.
Brushing Down “Argo”
My first Dog “Rocky” got sick. Argo didn’t have a handler at the time and the Platoon Sgt. told me to try him out. At that point in time, “Argo” had been in country for at least 2 years. He wasn’t a “Playful” Dog, which was good in the bush as he was all business.
I took a 5 day R&R in -country at China Beach. The waves were great. We surfed all day then at night we got blasted and listened to a Vietnamese band play American Rock songs. They were awful musicians. We didn’t care!
Veterans Park in Palestine, Tx. A brick with my name/unit and dates of service embedded here in 1994. My Mom took great pride in showing that her son was a Combat Vet.
During my professional career, I returned to Vietnam in 1995. We shot a documentary there at the 20th anniversary of the war’s end. It was an amazing trip. We toured the entire country while interviewing people and capturing film.
POW/MIA recovery dig near Haiphong in the north
Young Vietnamese Men in Hue. The photo, their expressions, their posture all tell the story of modern Vietnam. (mew photo: March 24, 1995)
A War story about a teenage warrior on the way to work in I-Corps Vietnam in 1970…
You are 20 years old, Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, seated in the open door of a Huey helicopter launched on a CA (Combat Assault by Air). There are five other soldiers seated on the floor of the ship with you, and two door gunners manning M-60 machine guns on both the left and right rear of the cabin. There’s a total of six Huey slicks needed to insert my platoon into the bush. We’re the third aircraft as they fly one behind the other. Our mission: Go to the Ashau Valley and kill the enemy. Flight time was about 15 minutes.
The beauty of the Jungle stretched to the horizon. A hot wind blows in my face as the ship flies at a speed of 100 knots while skimming the tree tops. I looked out and saw two F-4′ (Fighter Bombers) pounding the hill we were planning to land on in about two more minutes. There may be Dinks (a derogatory term used by GI’s to reference VC/NVA soldiers) on that hill waiting for us – or maybe not. During that last two minutes in the air, troops are filled with a feeling of doom and anxiety. As the helicopter approached the hilltop to land, the pilot flared his ship (pilot raises the nose of the chopper and reduces speed quickly, gently bringing the aircraft to a hover anywhere from 2-8 feet above the ground).
During that final approach is when you realize that not all pilots are equal – some touch down…many don’t. Troops may encounter smoke or even fire on the LZ ( the Landing Zone), and look up to see a couple of Cobra gunships circling above. The Door Gunners swiveled their weapons, and were watching the tree line around the LZ closely for any signs of trouble. If you have an experienced combat pilot he’s going to come in fast, flare and drop you from 4-6 feet off the ground. I always preferred to be first off the ship and usually jumped off from a height of six feet while the ship made its final approach to land. Remember that infantry soldiers carry rucksacks on their back weighing anywhere from 40-60 pounds and when combined with the weight of their weapons, radio and ammo, each trooper was heavily laden with the extra weight and off balance when jumping to the ground. I’ve heard of soldiers getting hurt during these jumps, but I never witnessed it myself. If you landed successfully on your feet then it was easy to quickly move off the LZ; landing on all four caused delays as you would require a second person to help pull you up. Thus exposing the two of you for a period of time.
When landing, I want to already know in which direction to head in after clearing the bird. I can’t guess where the rest of the unit was and wonder if they went into tree line or into that clump of Elephant grass. While standing on the skid during our final approach, I’d watch what the troops did on the first two ships and determined if it was a hot or cold LZ and quickly relayed back to my brothers in the chopper. After calling out instructions, I’d watch for a nod from the crew chief and then jumped when getting it.
It is at this moment when you jump to the ground that is an inexplicable high!! …..Once hitting the ground, the roar of the ships is deafening while the rest of the team exits the Chopper. There is now a partial sense of relief...” Well, I’m on the ground and no one is shooting at me yet”. As we ran to join the rest of the platoon, the tremendous aircraft engine noise faded away as the last ship departed the LZ. Suddenly it’s very quiet. Everyone is on heightened alert and listening! If nobody is shooting at us, then that’s a good sign!!…… the Pink Team or an O-2 may still be on station, but our immediate environment is now quieter and easier to interpret. One key to staying alive in the jungle is noise discipline. Don’t make unnecessary noise! Communicate by whisper or hand signals. Once the platoon sergeant has the unit organized, we moved out. Going who knows where…. In my experience, the majority of CA’s were not met with enemy resistance. Thankfully! Yet that last 2 minutes on the ship and the first couple of minutes on the ground are exciting, gut-wrenching and most stimulating moment of your short life. Professionally I was a Network level TV News cameraman for 18 years. —– but nothing in my life experience, ever matched the RUSH of going in on a Helicopter CA in a Slick as a member of an Infantry unit. Believe it or not…. it could be addictive. I’ll never forget it,
Many in the infantry received the Blue and Orange “Air” Medal “awarded for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.” I remember when my Platoon Sgt. handed me my orders as a recipient of the Air Medal. There was no ceremony. No handshake. Just “here you go.“ Infantry soldiers received an Air Medal after 24 combat assaults, pilots and crewmen received one after logging 24 flight hours. It wasn’t uncommon for air crews to be awarded forty-plus medals during their year-long tour (1,000 or more flight hours).
When I look at my framed Air Medal hanging on a wall of my home office, it is the memory of that last two minutes when inbound on the chopper that comes back to me. The whap-whap-whap of the Huey, the hot air in my face, the sound of the fighter-bombers, the stomach in knots, and leaping to the ground….
Some years later in 1985, I was working on a political story on Capitol Hill. The news desk editor called and told me that members of my old division had been in an airplane crash in Gander, Newfoundland. He asked if I wanted to go to Ft. Campbell for the Memorial service. (As if there was any question?? Of course!) He said, “yes we figured you would want to go”. The soldiers, most of them from the 101st Airborne Division’s 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, crashed shortly after taking off from a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. All 248 soldiers and the plane’s eight crew members were killed.
The Memorial Service was on Dec. 15/16 1985. It was bitter cold that day. In the 20’s with 9-10 mph winds. (I looked it up!) The division was formed on the parade field for hours. And we in the press stayed in the stands for hours. Above: A 105mm howitzer was fired every 5 minutes, marking the loss of one soldier.
To learn more about these special war dogs please watch this highly acclaimed documentary below:
I remember it all, even now as an old man…..
Thank you brother for contributing your article to my blog. Thank you, too, for your service, sacrifice, and Welcome Home!
NOTE: My new slideshow of personal photos was also completed and posted today as a YouTube video. Please stop by and check it out. Here’s the direct link: https://cherrieswriter.com/my-slide-show/