Their job in Vietnam was to get eyeball-to-eyeball with the enemy, begging to be shot.
They flew tiny, egg-shaped helicopters 8 or 10 feet above the ground, close enough to bend back the elephant grass.
It was the U.S. Army’s way of scouting out a highly disciplined enemy.
If the Vietnamese would fire at the little two-man choppers, it would mark their location. Larger helicopters could swoop down with big guns and win the day. Or perhaps rescue guys shot down in the “light observation helicopters” they called “Loaches.”
That was 45 years ago. They were young men, convinced they could whip the world.
They coped by hanging together in a jungle cottage they called a “hooch,” feeding on a reputation of being a little crazy to take on that mission. They would howl like idiots at night in a 6-by-12-foot “Club Room” with a refrigerator and illegal air conditioner. Then they got up the next morning and did it all again, refusing to think they may not survive the day.
It was unusual to go two weeks without getting shot at.
Now they’re hovering around 70. Some are in wheelchairs. Some have faced a longer battle, fighting harsh daydreams, nightmares, mood swings and quick fuses. The indifference and hostility they faced in America made many of them lock the whole experience inside.
They weren’t offered help back home. Some didn’t seek help for years as they ran through jobs and marriages.
On the first weekend in November, 10 of them got together on Hilton Head Island. Most of them had not seen each other since 1970.
Dave Mitchell of Bluffton, who organized the “Comanche Troop Pilots Reunion” at the Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort in Palmetto Dunes, said, “I don’t think any of us realized how badly we needed this.”
The Blackhawks of the Army’s 7th Armored Squadron of the 1st Air Cavalry once again laughed together on Hilton Head.
They came with their wives and a bag or two of golf clubs. They brought scrapbooks and slides. Mitchell hired a videographer to record their stories as they sat around a conference table. He thinks too few Americans know about the ‘Loach’s’ unusual contribution to freedom, and that it needs to be documented.
“Everybody in that group had some pretty hairy experiences,” said Joe Byrd, who drove from Plainview, Texas.
“We were literally the point on the spear,” he said. “We kicked ass and took names over there. That’s what you had to do to survive. But we had politicians who failed to stay the course is what it amounted to. People say it was a civil war and we didn’t belong there. Maybe that’s true, but if politicians send you in, they must do everything in their power to win. I still get emotional. I still have a lot of heartburn about the politicians controlling the country at that time.”
Phil Lange drove from Topeka, Kansas, for the reunion. During most of his service he flew above the Loaches in a command-and-control Huey helicopter.
“They’re all brave beyond description,” he said.
His wife, Kathleen, said she had heard the stories for years. Other wives heard more in one weekend on Hilton Head than they’d heard in 30 years.
“I thought I had left Vietnam and Vietnam had left me — but it hadn’t,” said Bob Buffington of the Atlanta area.
He remembers the day he watched men below him walk into a blood bath with no warning.
He remembers dropping down with a lot of cover to pull out a young man who had been hit in the chest.
“Two men had the wounded soldier strapped between two M16s lying on a poncho,” he would later write. “The two soldiers stood up to put the wounded man in. All hell broke loose. The three men fell like rag dolls beneath the chopper. Blood splashed onto the side of my visor and the chopper. Several rounds hit the back of my seat ... I was able to fly back to Vinh Long only by the grace of God. We had been hit 23 times.”
Bill Pond of Palm Coast, Fla., was the platoon leader in Vietnam, an old man at 23.
He called it a reunion of “brotherly love.”
“It was kind of a love-in, rather than a reunion,” he said.
Nobody but the ones in that room really knows what they went through.
“Something just came over us,” Mitchell said. “It was like that boyish, crazy bonding that we did over there came back. I didn’t realize how much I valued these people.”
Mitchell arranged for a memorial service at his church. It was held on the bluff overlooking the May River by the Church of the Cross in Bluffton. The Rev. Jonathan Riddle led the service honoring those who didn’t make it home, or have died since. Bill Pond, the old platoon leader, included the pastor when he handed everyone a commemorative Blackhawk challenge coin.
They went home, vowing to meet again before it’s too late. They said they’d write down their experiences in Vietnam before it’s too late.
Buffington said the reunion “was more than I hoped for. We could talk and know we were not village burners, baby killers and all the other things we were called when we got home.”
Mitchell said, “I think the more I come out in the open about it, the better I am.
“We’re ready to come out and say, ‘I did this. I’m not ashamed of it.’ ”