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What it’s like to...

Fly a chopper into history

Jon Stillman
Rotary Club of Stillwater Sunrise, Minnesota


This is the first time since I came back in 1973 that I’m revisiting my experience in Vietnam. I recently found a diary I kept tucked away all this time. It brought back memories of my three tours I had forgotten.

When I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I had no interest in becoming a member of the armed services. But because it was a land-grant university, male students traditionally enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps for two years. At the end of that time, I decided to stay in the program for another couple of years. Next I went to flight school, and that’s how I ended up in the Army.

After a basic officer course at Fort Benning, Georgia, I landed at Fort Rucker, Alabama, for advanced helicopter training. While there, I received my orders to go to Vietnam. That was February 1963. At the time, Vietnam was on nobody’s mind. Most people in the United States didn’t even know where it was.

I was apprehensive, mostly because I was leaving my wife of two years, Jane. During this first tour, I wrote to her every day and called her four or five times. Later, after the MARS (Military Auxiliary Radio System) was implemented, you had to follow radio protocol when you called home. That made it awkward to have a personal conversation: “I love you, Jane, over.” “I love you too, over.”

For an impressionable 25-year-old guy who had never left the country, diving into the unknown was another source of anxiety. And it was a cultural shock: a new language, a new religion, new vegetation, new food. Fortunately, friends of mine were already there when I arrived and helped me adapt to this foreign environment.

At Tan Son Nhut, the airbase near Saigon, I was assigned to the 57th Transportation Company, which operated H-21 helicopters, an older aircraft known as the “Flying Banana.” They were challenging but fun to fly. They were designed for cooler weather than what we had in Vietnam and required a lot of concentration. That explains why we sometimes wouldn’t even notice when we were hit by enemy fire.

The situation in Vietnam was confusing at multiple levels. The war had no linear battlefields like World War II. Saigon was pretty much secured, but you could be 10 minutes from the capital and get fired at. There were pockets of Viet Cong fighters that were hard to nail down. I also had the impression that the people you were supposed to help didn’t want your help.

In June our company was redesignated as the 120th Aviation Company, and we started carrying troops from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) into combat. The South Vietnamese soldiers were usually friendly, albeit a little timid toward Americans. They seemed to be fighting for a cause, while some of their commanders were clearly political appointees with no knowledge of the battlefield. This was quite frustrating, because it often led to the ARVN leaving a pathway for the Viet Cong to get away.

From 2 August to 4 October, I was stationed in the Central Highlands. This is when I first encountered the Montagnards, tribesmen living in the mountains. Our advisers were trying to bring them over to our side. During our meetings with the village elders, we were invited to take part in celebrations. Men wearing loincloths sat in a house built on stilts and played tribal rhythms on gongs. They passed around a jar of rice wine topped with tree branches and river water. I declined to drink the stuff because I had to fly.

In late September I attended a briefing by Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense. He had come to Vietnam on a fact-finding tour with a few of his Whiz Kids, the number crunchers and management experts who advised him. I was impressed by the specific questions he asked and his understanding of statistical data. However, I’m not certain that his corporate approach to running a defense system was beneficial.

Shortly after the briefing, I returned to Saigon on a classified mission that kept me on standby for three weeks. We practiced a drill to evacuate the U.S. Embassy and saw truckloads of troops appear at the airbase. I should have realized something was in the offing: On 1 November, helicopters were in the air over Saigon during the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem.

My first tour opened up a world to me, though it led to as many questions as answers. We were striving to do the best job we could and represent our country in a positive way. We were trying to win hearts and minds so that more of our young people at home would not have to come and fight in Vietnam.

As told to Alain Drouot

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• Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

• This story originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.