Stephen A. Matthews
"Rat Pack 15"
June 1968 - June 1969
This is a basic summary of my first Vietnam experience (with the 281st Assault Helicopter Company), although I've begun at the beginning of my military career (and included a brief recap of life to retirement from the Army). That seemed like a good place to start to invoke in the reader an understanding of a 22-year young kid, fresh out of flight school, slightly over two years of military service (all in schools), and in a hostile land with a monumentally dangerous job to do. This is a fraction of the story, and as memory allows, there will be much more to add.
I enlisted in the Army, under contract to fly helicopters, 29 March 1967. I was one step ahead of the draft, in fact my draft notice came about mid-January, 1967. I was inducted at the Kansas City, MO, induction station and then assigned to Ft. Polk, LA, for basic training. We, about six of us from KC who were all going to flight school, stayed one night at the induction station near the Union Pacific train station downtown KC, MO, and boarded the train for our trip to Ft. Polk. (My first introduction to real poker playing for $$$.)
Ft. Polk, the "Armpit of the World.! (Yes, and what does that make Vietnam?) Anyway, what does one say about basic training. I made it through with the vision of being a helicopter pilot. Not that I actually knew what that meant.
I arrived at Ft. Wolters, TX, in early June 1967 and was assigned to the Warrant Officer Rotary Wing Aviator Course (WORWAC) Class 68-3, 2nd Warrant Officer Candidate (WOC) Company, Flight A-2. Fortunately, my Primary helicopter experience was without major incident. Just the usual harassment, demeaning treatment and scared to death solo. I can still vividly recall the first time I soloed and feeling more concerned that I'd screw up than that I'd crash and burn. The most memorable thing about my time at Wolters was the time I tried to climb a TH-55 above its service ceiling of about 5,000 feet (which may have been pushing it). I seem to recall getting to 9,000 feet before feeling "Man, that's a long way to fall!" It took about as long to descend as it did to climb, and by then my solo period was over. Oh, yes, I also recall the BIG cross country expedition to Brownwood, TX. I don't recall how many people got lost (fortunately, I wasn't one of them), but it's very similar to the first time you ride a horse all day long, you know you've had enough when it's over.
Then it was on to Ft. Rucker, AL, in January 1968 to begin the tactical helicopter phase of flight school, and was assigned to Class 68-5, which began 24 January 1968. Again, my advanced helicopter training was fortunately uneventful. My most vivid recollections are of tactical instrument training - I HATED IT!! I hated that "Blue Canoe!!" I hated the hood, and I especially hated the thought that "THIS WILL NEVER WORK!!" And, actually when I got a few hundred hours in-country I was more sure of it than ever. Tactics was the most fun part of flight school. It actually seemed like I might get through and actually get to Vietnam to put it and me to the test. Again, little knowing what that really was. I graduated from Ft. Rucker in WORWAC Class 68-5 on 21 May 1968, and was ordered to active duty - WHAT ELSE!?!? My beautiful wife of almost 3 years was there and pinned my bars and wings on a very proud "Wobbly One." After the traditionally too short leave prior to departure, the day came to say good bye, and "hope" to see you again some day.
My "arrival" story sounds pretty much like most others, as near as I can remember. We knew we were getting closer to Vietnam by how much older and uglier the stewardesses got. The plane landed in Saigon, Republic of South Vietnam at Tan Son Nhut Airbase. I don't remember any cheers from the GIs or emotions of "I'm glad we finally got here!" Who can ever forget that first blast of hot, foul stench as you stand in the door of the plane that has brought you to what seemed like a Godforsaken country. You do sometimes wonder how anyone ever totally survives some of the things GIs go through.
I definitely remember the 21st Replacement Station in Long Bin. It was, of course, where all unassigned replacements were processed in-country to determine where in RVN you would end up. It is supposedly based on individual qualifications and "needs of the Army," but I can't help but think there were other forces at work in that place. It's a miserable place, but a good shock introduction to "GOOD MORNING VIETNAM!!"
I can't seem to recall actually getting to the 281st AHC in Nha Trang, north up the coast from Cam Ranh Bay. Maybe I was already in shock. I do recall the other pilots taking me in like family. I guess that's what we were at that point. I remember my first impression of the 281st compound was "What a dump," until I was introduced to the 5th Special Forces Officer's Mess, with steaks and lobster, slot machines, etc., and their compound had a barber shop, tailor shop, and lots of other amenities, which I learned very soon were real luxuries over there.
The two story barracks in the Intruder area were actually the coolest I ever saw during my tour; the way different guys had fixed up their rooms with commandeered property (most important was an air conditioner which was handed down like prized family possessions to younger generations), psychedelic painted walls, hanging beads, cross-bows, souvenirs of war, etc.
I think the buildings were still relatively new when I got there that summer of '68. I quickly learned how good 281st pilots had it after seeing some of the pits other pilots had to live in permanently their whole tour. Even the concrete and cinderblock shower room with porcelain flushing crappers was unique. We thought we had it rough when we went to Forward Operations Base (FOB), but some poor guys lived like that for their whole tour. I remember my room was located on the inside (from the perimeter) corner, second floor. I actually had it all to myself for most of my tour, even though it was set up for two. Don't know how that happened. I DON'T snore!
Living next to the Green Beret's Headquarters was GREAT!!!! There were many places a LOT WORSE than Nha Trang. (Didn't there used to be a handball court? - I sometimes think I get my second tour events and places confused with my first tour after all these years. Especially since my second tour started with the 10th CAB HHC in Dong Ba Thin. I had taken that direct commission to 1LT in the FA between tours while I was an IP at Ft. Wolters, believe it or not. Ya, I went back and taught those Pre-solo/ Primary1 guys to fly, as if one trip through Wolters wasn't enough. And, even had to teach a class of ARVN officers. Now that was a creepy experience.) I seem to recall a place to copy records onto reel-to-reel audio tapes, or "pirate" tapes from other guys. Of course, stereo equipment was THE BIG rage of the time, it was dirt cheap from the PX, and anybody who didn't come home with a full set-up was - well, let's just say they missed out. I still have mine!
I was assigned to the "Rat Pack" Flight Platoon, 1st Platoon. My in-country check out was like Rucker compared to others I've heard about. According to my flight records, my first in-country hours were logged on 19 June 1968. We had some great older ACs and IPs at the time I arrived, and I think I arrived while the unit was between FOB operations. I recall at first feeling like, "Man this is what I've been working for all these months!" And, then not too long afterward thinking "OH MY GOD - WHY DIDN'T THEY TEACH ME ANYTHING IN FLIGHT SCHOOL." I had some ash & trash before my first CA, so I was a bit more acclimatized to flying in country by the time my first CA came around. Near as I can recall, it was pretty uneventful, just a HUGE pucker factor!! I definitely remember the "What's going on?!?!" feeling as a Peter-Pilot, and the "watch the gauges and keep track of us on the map" routine!!! I wasn't the best navigator, BUT, I WAS NEVER LOST!! - Maybe momentarily disoriented, but never lost!
The missions I flew included resupply of that mountain top outpost just south of Nha Trang. Talk about a pinnacle landing. I still remember the first time I went in there riding as a PP, and we basically had to hover with the skids touching the log platform because it was too unstable to actually "sit down" on. The first time I went in as an A/C it was still a tense landing, almost like hovering out of ground effect at what seemed like 3-4,000 feet!! ( Boy, when you stop to think about it, there was a lot of stuff they couldn't possibly train a pilot for at Rucker. There would have been 50% attrition in every class. Why not save that for Vietnam!! Right!?!?!?!? )
I've researched the Vietnam War Memorial Wall Panels (thanks to the VHPA) for members of the 281st and found about 40 names over a 4 1/2 year period, from 66 through 70. Considering that only one person (SP4 Patrick Joseph Ronan, CE) was KIA from May '68 to Nov '69, which covered my whole tour, it seems like the 281st certainly had it's share of the action, which I guess actually means a bunch were KIA in a 3 year period. I earnestly wish I could say that I remember Ronan well. Unfortunately, after all these years, I can't remember the crew members I flew with routinely. I can barely remember some of the pilots. My only recollection is being in the unit supply room when the platoon leader was sorting through Patrick's belongings (his issue flight gear and 'personal' items) to pack them up to send them home. It was a solemn task and one which was done with sincere regret for the loss of a brave man, and a loved family member I'm sure. I was secretly glad I didn't have the task, because there is nothing worse than trying to explain the loss of a loved one to his family, but I know the platoon leader was taking the responsibility very seriously. I also remember the whole unit (even if briefly) mourned the loss of a comrade. Unfortunately, in war time circumstances facing daily life and death hostile situations people develop what is commonly referred to as "gallows humor" in order to cope with the stress, fear, and loss, so most people were back at work the next day doing what had to be done. As I've said MANY times, I consider myself truly blessed during that time. I was able to continue on after Vietnam with life and family, and career without problems. I know not everyone has been so blessed.
The 281st was located adjacent to the 5th Special Forces Group compound in Nha Trang. We were the only assault helicopter company located in Nha Trang (to my knowledge), and one of our regular missions was support for MACV RECONDO School for insertions/extractions, McGuire Rig training, etc. My memories of the 5th SFG club are probably the BEST memories I have of Nha Trang. MAN, what a club - steak, lobster, slots, live entertainment, etc. I got the privilege of flying Martha Ray around once. What a trooper!! I can understand why she was highly revered by SF types.
One of my vivid recollections of Vietnam was a routine resupply somewhere? It was sometime between late '68 and mid-'69 (sorry for the oh-so-vague memory) that I flew into Ban Me Thuot (I think) on a routine ash/trash mission from Nha Trang, or it could have been a refueling stop (who knows). When I arrived at the airfield there had obviously been a recent major action in the AO, because there were RVN coffins piled up like cord wood on the side of the strip. There must have been nearly 75 of those small (what looked like 2' x 2' x 5') wooden coffins piled 10-12 feet high and there were CH-47s hauling them out in huge cargo nets. Just before I arrived, one of the cargo nets had failed during takeoff and spilled its contents on the strip and there were a lot of RVN trying to clean up the mess. It goes without saying that the smell was unusually bad, and we took care of business and left as soon as we could. I know this sounds gruesome, but that's the way I recall it, and I my recollection was that it was at Ban Me Thuot airfield.
My big war story was very similar to many others only not quite so disastrous. We were at FOB An Hoa flying SF support of Operation Warbonnet (see the AAR) in I Corps in Oct-Nov '68 with "RoadRunners." These teams were a mix of 3-4 US Special Forces and 3-4 ARVN SF. November 11, 1968, the day after an insertion of Team #9, Ops got the call "TEAM IN CONTACT" and we scrambled with only a C&C, 1 gun team, and 2 slicks, as I recall. The team was on the run in contact and we had a hell of a time finding them. They were in the mountains near the Laos border with heavy jungle canopy. They couldn't break contact long enough for McGuire rig extraction or to get to a clearing (which were almost non-existent anyway) for pick-up. Finally, they got to a mountainside where there was some clearing and enough breathing room to call us in. Nobody could locate them from the air, so they finally had to pop smoke (purple as I recall, nothing like attracting as much attention as possible), and when it filtered up through the canopy, I was the first to spot them. C&C never did see them I don't think and the guns just said "We'll follow you!" I had a FNG PP who was really new. (Doug Stowe, I think??) What's a mother to do? I knew that the smoke would draw the VC, so I needed to get down there ASAP. There was a clearing down slope near the tree line and I asked if they could get there, and they said they could, so I headed down at a VERY high rate of decent and not too many options about approach or departure. I had to worry most about maneuvering up next to the hillside that was so steep that my rotor blades were cutting grass. The team had to watch their heads, and still had to jump to reach the skids. The team was firing into the tree line, my gunner was firing into the tree line, all the action was on my side (left AC side) and my PP and CE were just sorta hanging out in space watching the scenery. (Of course, I know they were covering our butt and right side.) When the team finally all got on board, all I could do with the DA, load and trees in front of me was peel off right, fly down the hillside to gain airspeed and lift, and hope to clear the rapidly approaching trees in time. Just about the time I was making that maneuver, the tree line to my left opened up and we got sprayed good with AK fire. One came through my windshield, hit the wiper motor and sprayed me with plexiglas and metal. I flinched to the right (which was fortunately the way I was headed anyway) but kept going and finally got airspeed, altitude, lift and out of harm's way. I assume the Wolf Pack was doing their thing, but quite honestly I don't remember any explosions while I was in the hole. Just small arms. And the radio chatter was unbelievable - intercom with the crew, FM with the Team, Victor with C&C and the guns. (I often think back and wonder how in God's name were we kids, I was 22, able to handle all that. Kids today won't even leave home by 22.) When we were gaining altitude I noticed that my PP was white as a ghost. He told me later all he could think was "Oh my God! He's been hit and I'm going to have to fly this thing, and I don't know where I am or where I'm going!" He did ask if I wanted him to take it, but I seemed to have everything still in tact, so I said I'd keep it for a few minutes to let everyone "un-pucker." By then the SF Team leader was up on the console thanking me for getting them out in one piece. He took a look at my face and neck and asked if I would like for him to remove the shrapnel pieces. I couldn't really feel anything, but I said sure, so he started picking what looked like huge pieces of plexiglas and metal out of my face and neck. Of course, my sun visor was down so nothing vital was hurt. When we got back to base everyone was curious naturally and wanted to see the blood and bullet holes. Somebody found the AK-47 casing of the round that "almost" got me laying in the chin bubble, and so from that day on I've carried it on my dog tag chain for good luck. (I didn't know it at the time, but LT Dave Dosker took the pictures and later gave me copies. THANKS DAVE!!)
Two days later I was given the coveted Aircraft Commander designation. Think there was a connection? I was told that I was recommended for the DFC, but it was downgraded to AM w/V. And it wasn't until 1980 that I received the Purple Heart. I eventually decided that I should have gotten it then, but since somebody didn't do their job, I would have to. It wasn't really difficult, just a lot of red tape, once you contacted the right person - YEP! That little old lady in tennis shoes at the Pentagon!!!
The overall tempo of my tour was the typical "hours of boredom punctuated by minutes of terror." While many flights were relatively uneventful (compared to that day in An Hoa), there were plenty of hot LZs and Combat Assaults that were far from uneventful!?!?!? I recall several scrapes during my tour that are, unfortunately, only vague memories of events, not details. These events included: hovering for an hour trying to pick up a downed pilot/crew on a hoist; flying thru a thunderstorm at night with lightening and no transponder; flying into/out of a compound under mortar attack and clipping the flag pole with my rotor just close enough to knock off the tiedown tip but not close enough to cause more than a nasty lateral vibration; going into a tight LZ too hot as #4 and sticking my tail rotor on a bush to keep from eating #3's tail rotor; a CA with ROKs and Marine 46's that lasted ALL DAY LONG with several sorties; hovering around over Nha Trang Bay for hours (in the wee hours, using 2 fuel loads) looking for wreckage of a downed USAF fighter; receiving the VN Cross of Gallantry along with the whole Rat Pack platoon it seemed like in Hue; going to Ben Hoa to the IP course and flunking out (maybe that's why they sent me to Wolters to train Pre-solo/Primary1?); sitting around the fire at FOB An Hoa listening to the SF guys scare the socks off us with their stories of 3 years in 'Nam and offering us monkey head soup; flying through 0-0 weather to accomplish a necessary resupply; flying "sniffer" missions; supporting RECONDO training; sunning on the bunkers; drinking warm beer; spending hours and $$ at the SF O' Club on the slot machines near the end of my tour because my hours we over the limit; eating lobster thurmadore for the first time; going on R&R to Hawaii with my gorgeous wife; and many more events that will come to me later - I HOPE!
After Vietnam, I stayed in and made the Army my career. I took the "nickel post card commission" as it was called to 1LT in FA in March, 1970. Got promoted to CPT in '71 after a year in grade as 1LT. (Never was a "Butter Bar" Thank God!) Spent 7 months on a second tour in RVN. Get this!! The Army softened the blow of a second tour with the Fixed Wing Q course enroute. I NEVER FLEW AN ARMY FIXED WING AFTER THE Q COURSE!!!! By the time I got back to Vietnam in September of 1971 they were standing down all the FW units, so I went to HHC, 10th CAB and became the HHC XO and PBO. BIGGEST MISTAKE OF MY LIFE!!!!! I got tagged as PBO 5 times after that, and got Logistics as an alternate specialty. KISS-O'-DEATH! If it hadn't been for some big-time scrounger NCOs (and I say that with the greatest affection) in Dong Ba Thin, I would have bought a tow truck, several trailers, and God knows what else. Thank the Maker for "combat loss." In December of '71 the 10th CAB stood down and returned stateside to Ft. Lewis, WA. I got transferred to the 52d CAB in Pleiku. (Now there's another story all together as the S-4.)
In 1972 (after my second tour) we got assigned to Ft. Lewis, WA, which may have been one of the best tours EVER. During the 2 1/2 years there, I got my FA command for 13 months, and then went to FA Advanced Course, Ft. Sill, OK, for 9 months (they say it was the last "long" FAOAC there ever was). After that I guess I must have shown some potential because I got the "Bootstrap" program to finish my bachelor's degree at Cameron University there in Lawton, OK. After that 9 months of civilian life we all (wife and daughter who was 5 then, and pet poodle who was 6) went to Germany for a tour from '76-'79, WE TRAVELED ALL OVER EUROPE AND THE MIDDLE EAST! Loved the travel!! Hated the daily living!! 14 foreign countries during the three year tour (including two weeks vacation in Greece - eat your heart out). My wife was able to go to Russia with an OWC group, but I couldn't because of my security clearance.
After Germany, we were assigned to Mother Rucker and I went through MOI to become a "platform" instructor - OOOHHH, get this!! I was "THE" U.S. Army Aviation School Subject Matter Expert for NOE Navigation!!!! Ya, the guy who was a questionable navigator at best in RVN. But, finally, I really learned how to read a map and navigate.
During the course of the next 12 years, until I retired in 1991, we had a 2 year break in service (since there was no way I was letting DA send me to Korea for a 13 month unaccompanied tour), after which I got back into the active service through the National Guard AGR program. I spent most of my time as the Kansas Army National Guard Military Academy Training Administrator, until I arrived at 20 years active duty and mandatory retirement. I was able to attend the reserve component C&GSOC resident course at Ft. Leavenworth in '85. I was on the LTC list in '89, but didn't get it before I retired. (The Adjutant General of KSNG said; "Since you're getting a Ph.D. by the time you retire, you don't really need a promotion to LTC." The dirty SOB ended up being forced out for misappropriation of Guard aircraft resources for personal business.) I was able to complete a masters degree from USC, the Systems Management program that was at most active duty installations, in '82, and I finished a Ph.D. in Adult and Continuing Education from Kansas State University May of '91 before I retired that September. After bouncing around to several jobs that seemed to be cursed to end shortly after I was hired, I went back to school and earned a Master of Library Science (Information Management) degree in 1996 from Emporia State University in KS, and went to work for a non-profit institute as a researcher in Topeka. We're still here, but now we own our own consulting business and we do education technology consulting for the local school districts. We are enjoying this time very much.
My wife (high school sweetheart) has stuck with me all the way. I couldn't have made it anywhere without her. We have one child, daughter, and the light of our life. She graduated from the University of Kansas in '93 (was the "Baby Jayhawk" mascot), earned a master in library science right after. She now lives with her husband Tim, a Gulf War veteran and officer in the US Army Reserves and is moving up the management ladder in a large municipal library system. We suspect she'll be the Director of the system before she's 40.
I last flew in 1980. I miss it some, but I know, like everything else today, it has changed beyond recognition almost. I hated flying as a staff officer in Germany trying to get minimums and feeling like you weren't really competent. And at Rucker, if you weren't an IP you weren't anything. ( Kinda like the Cav in 'Nam. "If you ain't Cav, you ain't shit!" )
At my retirement dinner September 30, 1991, I was able to honestly say that there was nothing I would have rather done with my life than be a soldier. (see "Soldier") I loved being a helicopter pilot, and that has gotten me more attention over the years than virtually anything else I've ever done. "You were a helicopter pilot in Vietnam? What did you fly? Weren't you scared? Man, I could never do that!" The dialog is almost always the same, and I suspect all of you, my "Intruder" brothers, have had the very same experience. That year from 6/68-6/69 is one of THE highlights of my life (surpassed only by; my wife who is my high school sweetheart, and my daughter) and I can never forget it. It may fade in my memory, but collectively, we all can keep it alive. May we always give 'em - Hell From Above !!!!
To be continued..........
Email: Steve Matthews
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