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Rattler One-Seven

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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.

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Prologue—18 Days

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P R O L O G U E — 1 8 D AY S

Sitting here in the quiet solitude of my den, I find it hard to believe that the events that I am going to tell you about actually took place.

When I reflect back upon them, they seem to be from another life, in another world, years ago. But they did happen, and I am thankful to be here today to tell about them.

Flying Captain for American Airlines on both the Boeing 767 and the 757 is a great job. It was my dream that I spent a better part of my life to achieve, yet I find it unfulfilling and boring compared to the flying experiences of my past. Yes, I have had a few emergencies at

American in my career. I had an engine blow up on a Super 80 going into Minneapolis. Luckily, we set her down safely with no injuries. But losing an engine on an airliner is mild compared to the excitement of my past. Where should I begin?

It was late August of 1979. It had been a quick, short summer as summers are when you live in Minnesota. I was the Chief Pilot of an air cargo outfit called Crawford Aviation, Inc. Crawford Aviation’s offices were located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with our maintenance being performed at the Lake Elmo Airport. Our duties entailed flying freight for Airborne Airfreight.

 

Chapter 1–First Assignment

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CHAPTER ONE

FIRST 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 the confusion 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.

 

Chapter 2–Company Checkout

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CHAPTER 2

C O M PA N Y C H E C K O U T

We headed out on Sunday, May 24, 1970, for the home base of the

71st Assault Helicopter Company. It was a dry, sandy road, and our jeep left a light cloud of dust as we traveled down it. The company area was situated along the South China Beach, about a mile from the

Chu Lai airstrip. As we traveled down the dirt road, my mind ran wild with excitement. Changing units was a lot like moving to a new job.

You are excited about the future and what it has in store for you, yet you are also sad and lonely, for it is not easy to re-adjust and make new friends. As our jeep pulled around the bend, I saw the South China

Sea. It had the most beautiful, glistening, white sandy beach that I had ever seen. I instantly felt the cooling breeze coming off the water as it swept across my face.

Our driver pulled into the company area and stopped in front of the orderly room. I jumped out and pulled my gear out of the jeep.

One of the first things you were required to do upon arriving at your new unit was to report to the orderly room and sign in. Being as trustworthy as I was, I set my equipment down outside and entered the orderly room. I pulled my orders out and presented them to the company clerk. He looked them over and told me to sign in. I reported to the commanding officer, Major Tommie James. Major

 

Chapter 3–Newbie

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CHAPTER 3

NEWBIE

My watch indicated 0500 hours as I climbed into the back of our company truck for the shuttle down to our flight line. I had barely gotten into the truck when I started hearing everyone shouting, “Newbie, newbie.” They also had other nicknames for us, such as “Peter Pilot” and “Meat in the Seat.” By the time I finished flying the first day, I would understand why they came up with the term “Meat in the Seat.”

During your first few weeks of flying, when you were new in country, your learning curve was very steep. There was a lot of action taking place in the cockpit, but as a new guy, you were sitting there in the copilot seat basically doing nothing but occupying space. You did not have a clue as to what was happening. From this emotional state of numbness came the term “Meat in the Seat,” because that was about all you were good for your first week. During my first day of flying out in the AO, I had a hard time just understanding the radios. My aircraft commander (AC) was listening to two, sometimes three radios at the same time. He had no problem understanding it at all. He had developed the knack of knowing what to expect and when to expect it from each channel. To me, it sounded like one loud garbled blur. As I sat there listening to this commotion, I was truly amazed that my AC had no problem talking on both radios simultaneously, switching back and forth between the radios as he spoke.

 

Chapter 4–My Cherry

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CHAPTER 4

MY CHERRY

I truly believe that until someone has been away from their loved ones, especially in a war zone, they cannot fully understand the importance of a note or letter from home. The letters that we received were lifelines to our other world, and that world kept fading further and further into the recesses of our mind as our tour rolled along.

I wrote my mother about every two weeks. I would not tell her about the action that I was participating in, because I did not want to cause her additional worry. During my tour my Mom sent me a subscription to the Minneapolis Star and Tribune Sunday paper, a great gift that kept me informed of events taking place back in the States.

My two best friends from high school each wrote me once. That was the extent of their communication. Another friend of mine,

Steve Djerf, wrote me weekly. I will always be grateful to him for those letters.

May 1970

Dear Mother,

Yesterday, I flew all day and night and only had four hours of sleep the night before, so I was just dead. I’ve already flown twenty-four hours. I guess they are averaging one hundred and forty hours in each thirty-day period. I’m learning a lot more about the War and Vietnam. I’m sure glad that none of the other kids will have to come over here. I wonder why I’m over here, in this strange country spending a whole year of my life risking even death for something I had nothing to do with.

 

Chapter 5–Special Operations

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CHAPTER 5

S P E C I A L O P E R AT I O N S

July 15, 1970

Dear Jim,

Well, I received your letter today. Tell mother that I’m sorry that I hadn’t written sooner, but for the last seven days I was real sick. The sickest that I can ever remember. This is just no place to get sick because you can’t take care of yourself and no one else will. A couple of days I was so weak I could hardly walk. I went six days without eating because I couldn’t get a hold of anything. It’s the worse I ever was in my whole life. I’m still grounded, but feel a lot better. I’ll go to the flight surgeon and get cleared for flight tomorrow. I’m feeling down in the dumps. People act so different over here, its really sad. They let their morals drop. They act like a bunch of kids.

All I do is try to analyze what I see about this war. The way we spend our money, time, etc. and how we are taken for granted. How no one appreciates what we are doing here, except maybe the ARVN forces. I just can’t see going out risking my life for no reason, except to maintain the same situation that we have been in for the last six years. I guess I’m just for fighting a war if I’m going to fight it and not be a part of a political circus. I thought I would really enjoy flying over here, because you would get the self satisfaction of helping people, but you can’t get that satisfaction. The worst thing is that we don’t know why we are here. I sure wish that I did. It sure would make this year go so much easier.

 

Chapter 6–Goodbye Friend

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CHAPTER 6

GOODBYE FRIEND

After the completion of the Kham Duc Campaign, we returned to flying in our old area of operations. We had several LZs located in our

AO, with names like LZ West, LZ East, Mary Ann, and Hawk Hill.

Hawk Hill was a fire-support base situated north of Chu Lai, a few clicks (kilometers) off Highway 1, halfway between Chu Lai and Da

Nang. Because our AO was located directly west of Hawk Hill, we used the hill as our refueling point for the missions that we flew in our

AO. An aircraft control tower managed the large volume of aircraft flying into Hawk Hill. In Nam, we always refueled hot, which meant that we kept the bird running while we refueled. Frequent refuelings and the quick turnaround times required to get back in the air necessitated this procedure. Rather than take the time to shut down the bird, we hovered up to the POL, set her down, then rolled the throttle back to idle. A Huey’s fuel load was good for approximately two hours and twenty minutes of flight. With this short duration of flight, we would have to refuel several times during the day, so hot refueling saved considerable time. When we refueled hot, all personnel except one pilot would climb out and get clear of the aircraft in case it caught fire. The crew chief would first ground the aircraft with a wire to the ground, then ground the fuel nozzle to the aircraft, and finally start refueling.

 

Chapter 7–Laughing and Crying

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CHAPTER 7

L AU G H I N G A N D C R Y I N G

The days seemed to run together as the months slowly passed by. I felt as if my whole life consisted of flying and sleeping. I did not think much about home anymore. The world I was living in was so different from the one in which I had been raised, to the extent that I found it extremely hard to emotionally relate one to the other. I was enjoying the flying and was really working at sharpening my flying skills, and I could tell that they were improving. How could they not? During an average day we were flying close to eight hours of actual flight time. I also found myself really getting “gung ho.”

In war, situations occur that are life-threatening, yet when they are over, we laugh about them. I think this is a way of coming to terms with the reality of death and accepting that it had escaped us one more time. One of these situations happened to me one afternoon, in our company area. I had the day down (off) from flying, and with nothing exciting happening around our hootch, I decided to take a walk down to the Firebirds’ hootch and see what was up. Firebird was the call sign for our gunships. We had eight UH-1C model Huey gunships in our company. A couple of my friends, WO Hubert Collins and WO

 

Chapter 8–The Holidays

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CHAPTER 8

T H E H O L I DAY S

November 22, 1970

Dear Mother,

I have today off because I have to fly tonight. I’m in good health. They sent the Americal Division home so they just changed us to the 23rd Infantry Div. All it was was a name change. My platoon leader from Fort Carson, who was stationed here, got killed last week. Quite a few people from Carson have been getting it. I am enclosing a money order for

Christmas. Please go ahead and buy the kids and yourself presents from me. If there’s any left, go ahead and buy the Christmas tree with it. Please spend it all. I hope this letter gets to you in time. The mail is starting to slow down quite a bit. I’m still trying to keep my morale up. It’s pretty hard sometimes.

Well, I better run now.

Holidays were some of the longest and loneliest days of my Vietnam tour. Those days were spent thinking about home and wondering what my family and friends were doing. I wondered how they all were and if they were missing me as much as I was missing them. I usually tried not to think about home because it made me feel lonelier and depressed. I discovered that the less I dwelled on it, the better off I was. But when the holidays came around, I could not help but think about home.

 

Chapter 9–Quang Tri

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CHAPTER 9

Q UA N G T R I

During the third week of January 1971 we received word that our unit would be moving again. This time it would not be just a short hop from the beach to the airfield. We were going to move our entire unit north, to a town called Quang Tri. Quang Tri was in Northern I Corps, just below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

The U.S. Armed Forces, combined with the ARVN, were mounting a big offensive to push west out to Khe Sanh and into Laos. This would be one of the biggest operations of the entire Vietnam conflict.

They were going to move half the country’s units north to support this offensive. Lam Son 719 would be the name of the operation. Lam Son had been the birthplace of a famous Vietnamese hero who had defeated the Chinese Army in 1427. The Vietnamese associated the name Lam Son with victory. As for the numbers, the 71 stood for the year 1971, and 9 was the name of the main highway leading out to Khe

Sanh.8 Phase one of this operation, called Dewey Canyon II, would be an American operation to clear Route 9 out to the Laotian border and reopen Khe Sanh.

 

Chapter 10–Rank

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CHAPTER 10

RANK

As the push to Khe Sanh continued, our unit continued flying several types of missions, ranging from resupply and combat assaults to troop insertions and extractions. We flew a lot of reconnaissance work, but sometimes we were stuck flying what I called taxi service. Taxi service normally consisted of ferrying the senior ranking officers from the brigades that we were supporting out to different sites in the field. We would wait while they held their conferences and then fly them back to headquarters—hence the nickname for such boring flying.

Most of the officers we ran this taxi service for were great to work with, but there were always a few ants in the picnic basket. From my own experiences, I soon discovered that if you were working with a full bird colonel, who knew that he did not stand a chance of making general, then you were almost guaranteed that he would be great to fly for.

He was not there to impress his superiors and win medals, he just wanted to do a good job and get his mission accomplished. But if we were flying for someone who stood the slightest chance of making general, look out! He would most likely be a Patton-in-disguise. Several of the lieutenant colonels who were pushing to make full bird colonel carried this same asshole trait in their character.

 

Chapter 11–Lam Son 719

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CHAPTER 11

LAM SON 719

February 2, 1971

Dear Tom,

Hi and how is everyone? I’m sorry I didn’t write sooner. We’re in the middle of a big operation and I just don’t have the time.

We moved out of Chu Lai and are up north along the DMZ, now working the Khe Sanh Valley. We are presently living in

Quang Tri and it’s a lot worse than Chu Lai. We’re operating our company out of tents and that’s really bad for the maintenance of our aircraft. We have no place to take a shower now and I think that’s the worst part. I imagine you’ll be reading about this operation in the newspaper and on TV. It’s one of the biggest in the war. You won’t believe how cold it is here! I got Mother’s letter of the 25th tonight. I really appreciate hearing from you all.

Today I go under 100 days left in country. I’m really anxious to leave. It just all builds up on you after awhile.

We left Chu Lai on the morning of January 30 and arrived at

Quang Tri that afternoon. From February 1–7 we were involved in support of Operation Dewey Canyon II, the first phase of Lam Son

 

Chapter 12–Lz Lolo

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CHAPTER 12

LZ LOLO

February was going by fast. Lam Son 719 had turned into a fullfledged war. The ARVN units we were supporting were meeting heavy resistance everywhere. Up at Ranger North, the 39th ARVN Rangers had to fight their way over to Ranger South, leaving over a hundred dead behind and several wounded.23 The ARVN forces at LZ 31 got overrun.24 They were taking heavy casualties, along with the American aviation units that were supporting them. There was no safe haven for helicopters; they were getting shot down everywhere.

Even the gunships were taking heavy losses. It was standard operating procedure (SOP) for our gunships to work in teams of two.

Because they worked in teams, the NVA figured out they could set up a trap by putting three of their .51 cal. machine guns in a triangle.

When the gunships made their gun run on one of the spotted .51 cal. positions, the other two machine guns would wait until the second ship had finished its gun run and was pulling up and away. Then they would open fire. It was a great tactical ambush—we heard that several Cobras had been shot down this way. This triangle ambush was working so well for the NVA that some of the aviation units were banning the

 

Chapter 13–Landing Zone Delta

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CHAPTER 13

L A N D I N G Z O N E D E LTA

On March 5, one of our Firebird gunships got shot down. WO Wendell Freeman and WO Pat Riley were operating their Charlie model gunship out west near LZ Alouie, supplying gun cover for a downed aircraft. Freeman explained to me, “It was late in the day and I had just told my crew, Dalferro and Betts, to go hot, when we started taking .30 cal. fire. We were flying low-level at about 125 knots, when my feet were suddenly blown off the foot pedals and up into the instrument panel! We took a direct hit in our belly by an RPG. Luckily for us, the RPG failed to explode. When this hit happened, Riley instantly took over the controls of our damaged bird. He immediately jettisoned the rocket pods and flew our damaged gunship down in a semicontrolled crash landing.”

Having survived the crash, the crew continued to take intensive fire from the enemy. Crew chief Paul Dalferro and gunner Jimmey

Betts diligently stayed at their guns, putting out a heavy barrage of fire at the enemy, but their situation was worsening. WO Hubert Collins and WO Michael Friel were flying as their wingman (gunships always flew in pairs). There were no other aircraft in the vicinity to do the rescue. Normally a slick would be used to pick up a downed crew, but without one being available and time being critical, they would have to rely on their wingman. Collins brought his gunship in under heavy fire, taking several hits as he landed his bird about a hundred yards from the downed gunship.

 

Chapter 14–Realization

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CHAPTER 14

R E A L I Z AT I O N

March 9th, 1971

Dear Mother,

Hello and I’m fine believe it or not. Been flying so much lately.

We just don’t have enough pilots. I guess you’ve been reading about the war. It’s really bad. Everyone is getting shot down or shot up. I just wish that they would of waited till June to start this operation.

I don’t want you to start worrying, because I’m ok and if anything ever did happen, it wouldn’t help by worrying. I have over 1200 combat hours now. Sure could use a vacation.

By the time that you receive this, I will have less than two months left.

I’ve been getting the letters real good and I really appreciate them all, it’s just that we are so tired and pushed; it’s hard to get off a letter. I hope you understand. It’s really hard to believe that I will actually be leaving this place. All I can say is that it’s been a long year—soooo-long. I feel that I say the same thing every time that I try to write, but it’s really hard to find something to write about.

I found it hard to understand how they could have forgotten about my helicopter and me, sitting out in the field, but they had. I decided that I would forget about building all those flight hours, and so I put in for my R&R (Rest and Relaxation). I had not planned on taking one, but after LZ Delta it seemed like a good idea to get away from Nam

 

Chapter 15–Chu Lai

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CHAPTER 15

CHU LAI

March 28, 1971

Dear Mother,

Well our operation is over with for our company. We have six flyable aircraft left out of twenty-three which we started with.

Everyone’s back out of Laos and everybody sure is glad. We’re moving back to Chu Lai this week. I guess we’ll go back to the same area as before. Everybody is just worn out. Sure will be glad to come home. It’s starting to get real hot again. I was hoping it would stay cool until I left. Sure could use a good meal now, our mess is so pathetic. I guess I’ll close for now.

The first of April brought a sigh of relief for the 71st AHC. Lam

Son 719 had finally ended. In the two-month period from January 30 through March 26, I had flown 285 hours of combat in 56 days. We were worn out and anxious to get back to Chu Lai and our old area of operations. As we packed our belongings, I felt that strange sad feeling come over me again. I was glad that Lam Son 719 was over, yet I knew that I was going to miss Quang Tri. Before I left, Com had given me a golden double-heart necklace. I would end up wearing this necklace for years to come.

 

Chapter 16–R&R

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CHAPTER 16

R&R

It was finally time to go on my R&R. As I was getting packed, I realized that I did not have any shoes to take with me. One of the lieutenants in our platoon, the one I did not get along with well because of our argument over his minimal postflight inspections, offered to loan me a pair of sandals. I thought his offer was quite unusual, but nice, so

I took him up on it.

I had been looking forward to getting away from the war. I caught a military flight from Chu Lai to Da Nang, where my flight to Sydney was scheduled to leave. When I arrived at Da Nang, I ran into WO

Buddy Howard, a friend whom I had met the day I left to come to

Vietnam. What a pleasant surprise that was, and to top it off, he was going on his R&R and was also headed to Australia. It would be more fun to go with someone, whom I enjoyed being with, rather than by myself as I had expected to do.

I did not know what to expect in Australia. I had never been out of the States before joining the service, other than to cross the Minnesota state line into Canada. Howard and I boarded the charter flight to Australia, courtesy of the U.S. government, and kissed Vietnam goodbye.

 

Chapter 17–Homeward Bound

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CHAPTER 17

H O M E WA R D B O U N D

May 5, 1971

Dear Mother,

This will be my last letter sent from Vietnam. I’m down in

Saigon, on my way back to Chu Lai from leave. I’ll tell you all about it when I get home. I leave Chu Lai on the 10th to go down to Cam Ranh. I should be coming home either the 15th or 16th. Starting to get real excited about getting my tour over with. I’m done flying now or at least I’m supposed to be. So for once I’m pretty sure that I’ll make it. I’m really tired and worn out from this past year. I thought it would never end, but I guess even bad things come to an end sooner or later. I guess I won’t get much sleep the next week or two. Just be too excited to sleep. I guess I’ll close for now.

Love,

Chuck

My flight brought me back into Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base, located in southern Vietnam outside of Saigon. From there, I would have to catch a flight back up to Chu Lai with the air force, on one of their C-130s. The following morning, I checked with the air force on getting a flight up to Chu Lai. They told me to check back the next day because everything was full this day. Since I was not in a hurry to get back to flying, I said sure and took the rest of the day off. I decided to walk over to the Tan Son Nhut Officers Club for lunch. When I walked

 

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