John's Military Experiences

The Army 

The Choice

After graduation from El Molino High School in Forestville, California, I joined the United States Army. It was in the middle of the Vietnam War and all young men were subject to the draft. I thought that I would avoid the possibility of being drafted and forced to be a “foot soldier” by joining the military. Joining had advantages; first and foremost, you were able to choose your MOS, Military Occupational Specialty, which was your job in the military. Second was that since you joined and were not drafted, the military leadership treated you pretty good, comparatively speaking. The down side was that you had to give an extra year, draftees had to serve two years while those that joined served three years. It seems like a good trade after I heard about being a foot soldier and all. After researching the different services, I decided to join the Army, mainly because I wanted to fly. So I took the oath September 26, 1966 to become a helicopter pilot. Going to the induction center in Oakland California was quite a change in my life (!). All the young men were herded around like cattle, getting inspected, immunization shots, taking tests and so forth. Finding that I could “hear thunder and see lightning” I was accepted into the Army at the young naive age of 18.

From Oakland I was shipped to Fort Polk, Louisiana for basic training. This was 8 weeks of training that first taught you that you knew nothing and you were nothing, something I already knew. After 8 weeks of getting yelled and cussed at, getting up during the middle of the night, doing exercises, learning to shoot a rifle and eating lousy food, I graduated. What a time that was! We called the post Fort Puke, Lousyanna!

I had taken a number of tests and one test was to see how smart I was and it turned out that I was less smart than even I had thought before because I ended up getting a score of 114 and needed a score of 115 to be able to figure out how to fly a helicopter. This was a disappointment but the Army said I could go to another school (MOS) and then reapply for flight school. I later re-took the test and got 130 but by then I did not want to be a pilot anymore because they got killed just as much the foot soldiers. I elected to become an air traffic controller and spent 6 months at Kessler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. During this time I had learned the value of education and found that I liked school, so I did pretty good and came out promoted to Private First Class (PFC). After graduation from this school I got my first assignment to Fort Steward, Georgia. What a miserable place that was I remembered that it was hot and lots of bugs. I was there only a short time and got notice that I would join up with an OV-10 (an observation aircraft) unit at Fort Lewis, Washington for further transfer to Vietnam. I spent some months at Fort Lewis and then was told that I could not go to Vietnam with a unit, which my MOS was only to be sent as a single person. That did not spoil much of my day and I ended up spending more than a year at Fort Lewis working in the Air Traffic Control Tower. This is where I learned to play pinochle and that I should always be careful playing partners because I almost got thrown off the tower a couple of times when I messed a play.


In July of 1968 I received orders to Vietnam. I really did not know what to expect. The media was having a field day with everything to do with Vietnam and there were protests and rallies and complainers and on and on. As I remember, none of this much affected my thoughts or concerned me. Going there was part of my duty and I was going to do it. I remember actually looking forward to it and being a naïve country boy not knowing much of anything, I did not know what I was getting into. The flight was long and we went through Hawaii and Japan finally landed at Ben Hoa, near Saigon, Vietnam. I do remember walking off the plane and how I was impressed with the heat and how all was so old, plain and military. I was taken to a billeting area where I stayed for several days in-processing and getting all my equipment. It was the monsoons and it rained once a day, or should I say it down poured. I learned that I would be stationed for a year in Plieku, a city in the highlands. Plieku was about half way down the country and closer to the border of Laos than the ocean. It was a fairly good sized city and the country was beautiful. Please understand that Vietnam was a wonderfully beautiful, green, lush country. The main crop was rice to feed the people, so there were rice paddies everywhere.

The people of the country were numerous and exceedingly poor. I would walk to the city, about a half mile, and passed the “houses.” To call them houses was a misnomer. They were small huts with a tin roof and cardboard walls. The bathroom was right outside the house. Basically the people were very friendly to Americans. They always begged for money or whatever. I had to watch my pockets because there were pick pockets. The main enterprise was growing rice and selling stuff to the GI’s.

Plieku was in the mountains and the high elevation meant that the daily temperature was quite manageable and actually enjoyable. I had to wear a jacket at night because is a little chilly. Outside the city was rice paddies and foliage. There were no rural areas where people lived. I was put in a prop driven C-130 (a cargo airplane) and flown from Saigon to Plieku which took an hour. I actually was stationed at Camp Holloway which was an Army base six miles from Plieku. In the same area there were a camp called Artillery Hill where the artillery cannons were based that protected the whole area out to many miles. The main military compound was Plieku Air Force Base which had a long runway and could handle any of our military’s aircraft. I remember we used to “take a break” and go to Plieku AFB to bask in civilization of air conditioned buildings, grass and a nice large BX (Base Exchange which was like a department store). It was a little bit of heaven, especially compared to our camp of rundown buildings and dirt everywhere.

Upon arrival at Camp Holloway I was taken to the Headquarters room and checked in with more paperwork. Next was weapon assignment, I got an M-14, a single shot, semi-auto, mine was a straight auto (machine gun) 7.62 mm rifle.  I found my building which was an open bay Quonset hut where I stayed with about 20 other GIs. We had standard bunk beds and no privacy. The bathroom was outside in another building that serviced lots of folks. I quickly found that Camp Holloway was a make-shift camp of jumbled buildings and equipment. Each hooch had several hooch-maids, Vietnamese women that made beds, did laundry, polished boots and kept the hooch clean. The hooch-maids spoke broken English and put up with a lot of harassment from the GIs. They were paid $20 a month per solider and each had four to six people to take care of. These women were nice people and got paid very well compared to the average Vietnamese. My maid’s name was Dao.

In the picture on the left you can see the PSP (pierced steel plank) portable runway. On the left of the picture you see the “Christmas tree” or the hot refueling site where aircraft would be refueled while running. To the bottom right is the living and administration area. Between the Christmas tree and runway were the revetments or sandbag enclosures that protected the helicopters from mortars and rockets.

Plieku was the home of the largest concentration of aircraft in Vietnam, mostly being helicopters. There were UH-1s (that is what I later flew), used for troop transport and modified versions with rockets and machine guns that were called hogs. Observation helicopters were used to find and mark the bad guy concentrations and did not have much room inside and carried very light weapons. The pilots that flew these aircraft were known for being very brave and/or crazy. There were the new AH-1 Cobra gunships which were made specifically as a rocket/gun platform, the first of its kind in the world. There were large medium and heavy lift helicopters called CH-47s (which I later flew) and CH-54s. They hauled trucks, supplies, artillery pieces, broken helicopters and other stuff that was too big for the Hueys.  There was also fixed wing aircraft, but all pretty small. The largest that would land and takeoff at Holloway was the C-130 which was an Air Force aircraft. The different services where very segregated and stuck to themselves so only Army aircraft were stationed at Holloway. We had OV10s and OV-1s which were observation aircraft. They carried smoke rockets to make positions so the gunships could come and blow the heck out of whatever was there.

My rank was SP4 or Specialist Fourth Class which is the same as a corporal but a corporal is a leadership rank like a sergeant, while the Specialists are what it sounds like, they are technicians. After getting settled in my “hooch” which is my home, I was trained to work the tower. I started off as “ground controller” which is relatively easy compared to the “local controller.” By the time I left country, I was a SP5 which is the same as a “buck sergeant” and was “shift supervisor.”

Because the “Highlands” and specifically Camp Holloway, was the largest base of helicopters, it was an incredibly busy place for air traffic controllers.  On average there were 700 movements (take offs) first thing in the morning which usually encompassed an hour. A movement is an aircraft leaving or arriving at the camp. That means that the “local” controller (the person that talked to aircraft taking off, landing and in the air) was very busy during the time of departures and then in the evening, recovery. There was always at least three people on duty in the tower; the local controller, the ground controller (deals with aircraft after landing and being handed out from the local controller or is the person that aircraft first call upon engine start-up) and the shift supervisor who was in charge and responsible for everything that happens. I was an air traffic controller from my course graduation in May 1967 to when I got back from Vietnam in July 1969. I re-enlisted again in 1971(2) and took up my MOS again until I went to flight school in August 1977.

Vietnam was an interesting and/or exciting experience for many reasons but just to name a few:

  • Accidents, emergencies, shot up aircraft, hurt people. The “bad guys” were everywhere and there wasn’t a solid “front line” like in most wars. The Viet Cong (VC) were a communist irregular North Vietnam army and they lived with the civilians, did not wear a uniform and could not be identified as the enemy. They fought alongside of the regular North Vietnam Army (NVA) but were not trained nor equipped like the NVA. The VC mostly fought during the night and were a guerilla fighting force. They believed the Communist dogma and seeked to unite the north and the south into one country.
  • Regular mortar and missile attacks, periodical attempts to overrun the camp. The VC were provided with weapons of war, rifles and plus mortars and rockets. The mortars were 80 mm and the VC had a million of the things. We were regularly “hit” by mortar attacks, three to four times a week. The rockets that the VC used were 122 mm and they did much more damage than mortars. Mortar and rocket attacks were always at night and I was often woken up by mortar fire. When this happened I rolled off my bed onto the floor, which was below the protective wall of sandbags that surrounded the hooch. I then would run for the bunker which was next to the hooch.  The bunker was made of sandbags, wall and ceiling which protected us against mortars but not rockets. Mortars are basically little bombs about the size of a baseball and would usually wound a solider and killed him if he was within five to ten feet of the blast. The mortar did not do much physical damage except to the fragile aircraft. Rockets on the other hand where nasty and scary. They were about six feet long and four inches across. They would make a three foot hole in the ground (or runway, which is what the VC wanted along with aircraft). Bunkers did not protect you from rockets, but because of the size and expense, we only got hit at the most, once a week with rockets.
  • Espionage and sabotage. Because the Vietnamese people worked on the camp, espionage and sabotage was common as many workers, both male and female where VC. Most of the workers were good people that were friend of the U.S. but there were some VC that reported to the bad guys what we were doing, the layout of the camp, equipment and such. They also planted bombs and broke equipment on the camp.
  • Electricity, generators and bathrooms not working at any given time day and night. All the utilities were monitored by the Vietnamese, these included electricity generators, water, sanitation and bathrooms. The camp had huge 100 KW diesel generators for electricity and they ran only in the morning and evening providing electricity to the hooches, club and bathrooms. If you came home too late from the club the toilets did not work because there was no electricity to provide water to operate them. That would mean between midnight and dawn the toilets would get full, quite nasty. I remember the GIs would really get angry if the Vietnamese let the generators run out of gas or break. This happened a lot and on time the worker that was responsible for the generator was found crucified with rope to the wall of the generator house. Service got better after that.
  • The “Club” and drinking. About the only thing to do when off duty besides playing cards and reading was to drink and most people, officers and enlisted did it. I remember having contests to see who could drink the most and I often won because I would go to the bathroom and force myself to throw up and then go back and drink more… I remember on particularly nasty time when my buddy and I stopped at the bathrooms late after a drinking party to urinate and I heard a weird sound. It was like “urg… splash, urgh… splash. This kept happening and I found that the source was a GI and his knees next to the toilet throwing up. The splashing sound was from when he leaned forward to throw up, his face would hit the goop in the toilets that had collected after the electrical generators had been shut off and there was no water to flush to toilets… I remembered never to get drunk anymore.
  • Racial problems with the white and blacks. The time I was in Country was the time of problems between the whites and blacks. Before joining the Army and going to Vietnam, I did not have any idea of racial problems because I grew up where there were few blacks and my parents taught me to respect all people. I remember the first time I saw a group of blacks beating up a single white guy and that really got my attention and made me think!
  • The Vietnamese people, workers, mountain yards (indigenous people) problems. There are two main cultural and racial groups of Vietnam. There was the Vietnamese people where are related to Chinese and then there are the Montagnards (Mountain Yards) who are the aborigine people who historically made their homes deep in the forests of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Their people were like the Native Americans in that they are were nature loving and lived without all the trappings of civilization. The “Yards” looked different from the Vietnamese people as they were stout and muscular, were smart but had little interest for the things that we liked. Like the blacks in America, the Yards were and are still discriminated against and persecuted. They are a very independent people and were very close to the American soldiers, particularly the Special Forces.

The weather, hot and humid, downpours daily made for miserable living: When I arrived in Country I had known hot muggy weather from Ft Polk, Keesler AFB and Ft Stewart, but hot and humid took on a whole new dimension when the plane door opened in Nam. It was hot year around and during the monsoon season it was particularly bad because it rained and rained and rained. To say it rained was a patent understatement. I remember my first rain while processing into Country. We stayed in hooches that were 10 feet from each other end to end. When it rained we could not walk outside other than on the boardwalk because of the rain water and mud, so we went from building to building until we got to the mess hall or PX or whatever. It rained so hard that we would get a running start in one hooch and dash outside into the next hooch; even so we got so wet I could have jumped into a swimming pool, drenched is more like it. It rained… 

My initial helicopter orientation ride: Shortly after getting to Camp Holloway I was given an orientation ride in a helicopter that was going on a maintenance test ride. It was custom since I was to be ATC, I needed to know what things look like from the air. Since it was a maintenance flight the aircraft had no seats and I sat on the floor, no safety harness, no guns and no nothing. While in the traffic pattern (that was all we were supposed to do) the pilot was called off to a convoy that was being hit (attacked) by VC. We were to act as decoy so the VC would shoot at us and the Cobra gunships could see the VC and attack them. Oh what a thrilling initiation into Country! It was thrilling, zooming up and down the road, watch as the battle worked its way out. There kept being loud hitting noises and when I asked the pilot what they were he calmly stated that we were being shot at and hit. Again I was happy that I was ATC and not a helicopter pilot whose attrition rate was relatively high. I always thought it was higher, but the heads in Washington know all. Anyway, we got hit with a big one, scared the pants of me and thankfully we left and flew home. Never found out about the convoy, but it was common for them to be hit.

I worked as a SP4, trained ground and then local control and then got promoted to SP5 (leadership rank) and was shift supervisor. I remember nights when I was in the tower and we were hit, mostly with mortars (usually once week) but sometimes we were hit with rockets and mortars. They mostly tried to hit the helicopters with 122 millimeter rockets and anywhere with the mortars. It was bad; I have often thought how fortunate I was in the tower as it was the safest place on Camp. Mortars could kill, but mostly produce shrapnel and we were protected in our sand bag bunkers. The rockets were different: there was no protection from them. They left a five foot wide, four foot deep hole. Bad news.

The Camp Commander, a Lieutenant Colonel, would come up to “supervise the battle” but in reality did not do much supervising, he too knew it was safe. One other time when I was in the tower we were hit with mortars and the kids (they were mostly Vietnamese kids) were on drugs or crazy because there was a flare (for illumination) helicopter up and 2 gunship helicopters. That was unusual because there was always a flare ship up and when the threat was high a gunship, but I had not heard anything. Anyway the mortars began to land, one of the pilots saw the flash from the mortar position and in minutes the gunships hosed the spot with mini-guns.

Mini-guns were 7.62 mm (30 caliber) multi-barreled guns that spewed out up to 6,000 round a minute. They generally were turned down to 3,200 or so to keep the life of the weapons within limits. The next day a patrol brought the bodies in and they were like hamburger.

CH-47 crash: I was in the hooch when I heard this tremendous crash. We all ran to the airfield and saw a CH-47 (the same I flew later) had crashed upside down on the runway, burning. Of course it was mass confusion with people and equipment here and there. The runway was made out of PSP, sheets of metal that you could hook together. The PSP was so hot that it melted the boots of those trying to rescue the crew. A Chinook had a crew of four, two pilots, one engineer and one crew chief. The two in the back were killed instantly but the pilots lived because the front blades had swiveled down and cut the cockpit off right behind the pilots.

Killing the local friendlies: This happened sometimes but not very often thank God. The crew chiefs and gunners would talk about it at the club. Even the little that I learned about was a life changing experience for me… never was the same afterwards.

Leisure time: We really did not do much. We sat outside and suntanned, read, played cards, drank beer and sometimes went down to the “Ville” (village or more correctly, the City of Plieku, GIs always called it “the Ville”). I never liked going to the Ville because I had signed up not to be killed and GIs were always getting killed there. I did make several trips to Saigon for a couple days of break. These were always nice and nothing happened. It was a very busy place, many, many people on bicycles, motorcycles and on foot; there were few cars. Whenever a GI would go to a civilian place (we would only go in the day time) we would be overrun with children selling everything including their sisters. I would put my wallet in my breast pocket because the local kids used razors to slice your back pockets to get your money.

Rest and Recuperation (R&R), Bangkok, Thailand: Six months through our 12 month tour we got to choose a place to spend a week in R&R. We could go to Hawaii, Australia, Bangkok and a couple other places I can’t remember. Why I choose Bangkok, I can’t remember either, but I had a marvelous time. I went with a black buddy, arrived and went to a hotel and proceeded to party. The extent of my partying was enjoying the City, visiting historical sites, ruins of old cities, and animal parks where we got to hold python snakes. The black guy was freaking out with the snake. I was holding on to its head with all my might and it just moved around and looked at him.

We went to a traditional Thai village, made for tourists, saw lots of traditional dancing and working with elephants. My companion Lek, which meant beautiful flower, which she was, took me to her home for a meal and to meet her family. It was one of the things I enjoyed and remember the most. I recall the home being fairly nice and there were lots of children on the second floor that totally surrounded the main room. As we ate, with the mother and father there, I grabbed what looked like a string bean and was about to eat it when Lek said I should not. Well let me tell you, being a big strong American and there was not anything I could not do. Boy was I sorry! It turned out to be the hottest pepper I have ever had. Of course I had to buy some to give to my black friend as well as my buddies back in Country.

We finished off our stay by going to REAL Thai boxing contest; it was amazing. In one match, the two boxers said their prayers, matched off and one guy kicked the other in the head, he went down and the match was over. Whoa!

Home Coming: While in Country I listened to the news on the Armed Forces Radio and was therefore warned of the lack of support for the war. In general, the GI’s in Vietnam thought that all the people protesting the war should be packed up and sent to Vietnam. So when I walked off the airplane in San Francisco, I was not shocked to be looked at as a mother rapist and a baby killer. Basically you did not wear your uniform in public off post.

Home Again

I returned to California and was released from the Army September 1969. I lived with Mom for about three months and then rented a small hut from my Uncle Ralph. Mom remembered me as her little boy… I had changed, grew up a lot. She would want to know where I was going and when I would be back, just like when I was16; it drove me nuts! I was now 21 so I moved out. I enrolled in Santa Rosa Junior College and spent a lot of time partying and having fun. My high school buddy, George Tinaza and I got an apartment by the college.

Army Continued…

Rejoined Army: I was working and going to college on the GI bill and money got tight (someone stole my motorcycle) and I was not satisfied with my present situation. I was working at a factory that dried apples to put into Pop Tarts and such. The job totally stunk. I would wear a respirator because of the apple dust in the air. It was hot because of the furnaces. The heat and dust in the air made for a sticky goo on your sweaty face and hands. My mustache was full of sticky apple. Miserable! I decided to reup in the Army, a good decision, thinking back on it now.

Germany: As a sergeant, I got to pick my first assignment. It was Germany, Esslingen, Nellingen Army base in Southern Germany. I was in charge of the “tower” on the base; it was actually a flight service station… boring, especially after what I went through in Viet Nam. Eventually I was selected to be the company training NCO which was better. My officer was Lt Jack German. More on him later.

My friends and I went to many concerts with famous musicians, Lead Zeppelin, one of many. We also went to a “Woodstock” on an island in the Rhine River. It was a three day outdoor extravagance with every famous rock band available.

It was in Germany that I met Peggy and Jack German (he introduced us to the LDS Church). I spent four years here. I loved Germany. More later. Next was Fort Lewis, Washington.

Ft Lewis: At Fort Lewis I was an air traffic controller and was promoted to staff sergeant (E-6) while there. Joining the LDS Church taught me that I needed to improve my situation, spiritually, employment wise and financially. Peggy and I decided that I should apply for warrant officer flight school which I did and was accepted. We moved to Fort Rucker, Alabama and was there for about a year.

Flight School: I reported to flight school in September 1977, it lasted 11 months and was the hardest thing I have ever done. I had been in the Army nine years, was 30 years old and was a staff sergeant which is the middle rank enlisted rank. At this stage I was a leader of men and it was hard to start over again at the bottom. I was under kids that came off the street after high school, humbling. That and the physical activities and academics where tough.

I had on post housing, so Peggy and the children, Ben and Sandy were close. I could not live at home for the first three months of flight school. I lived in a barracks with 34 other men and shared a room with a man. Right away we were let known that we were lower than dogs. The staff treated the candidates (that is what we were called, usually very loudly) badly so the weak candidates would quit. That way the Army would not waste money training the unfit, as pilots live under a lot of stress and have to perform and make decisions in a split moment.

My group started with 34 men and graduated with 14. We would get up before sunrise, dress in a physical training (PT) uniform and fall out for PT. This went on for about an hour. Did lots of pushups, pull ups, and ran everywhere we went throughout the day, never walking. We had a Senior Warrant Officer as out TAC Warrant Officer, our supervisor. We also were assigned a senior candidate as his assistant. We wore cloth tabs on our hats that changed colors as we progressed through training, the senior candidates wore black and we had to salute them as officers. Before we left the room for PT we had to straighten our bunks and room; it had to be perfect. The bunk blanket cover had to be tight enough that a quarter would bounce on it. There was a special order how our lockers were arranged; our bathroom articles needed to be such and such and immaculate, our underwear was in a six inch roll, our uniforms hanged perfectly in the locker. We spit shined our boots daily and the shoe polish had to look like it was never used so we had to light it on fire after using to melt it flat. We waxed and shined the floor with multiple layers of melted wax every night, the floor was shiny! When we were out during PT the TAC officer Mr. Potts would come in and inspect everyone’s locker and room. He would mess up everything in the locker when we came back in we would have to straighten everything back up (using a ruler) before leaving for class. The TAC officer would pull our beds out and use one of our handkerchiefs to scrub in the corner of the floor to see if there was dirt on the floor, if so he would take the shaving cream from our lockers and spray it on the floor. This removed the wax from the floor so when we got back at the end of the day we would have to strip and re-wax the floor; this took time. We then did our studying for hours.

We could not have any private things in the locker or room, only Army stuff. We got pretty good at hiding things, like our used shoe polish, the only thing was, the senior warrant officer went through this same process and knew all the hiding places. Sometimes in the middle of the night the senior would come in and scream “Candidates post!” We would jump out of bed and run out into the hall and post at attention with our shoulders plastered against the wall. The senior would yell at us and call us names, this was especially prevalent during the first month of school, after that things got progressively easier.

We were never to eat anything but mess hall food. There was tape on the chairs that lined out the first six inches. Our butt could not cover the tape line. We sat at attention and ate “square” meals; we sat looking straight ahead, never looking at our food. We would take our fork or spoon and attempt to get food into our mouths, if we dropped the food we were yelled at. The utensil with food would be brought straight up from the plate in front of our mouths then laterally to our mouths. This took practice… 

We learned early about Hardy runs. We would somehow contact our wives to go the restaurant at night and buy a bunch of hamburgers. The senior candidates and the TAC Officer knew we did this and after the first time getting busted, let us get by with it.

We would get demerits if we screwed up during the day. After the first month we could get a pass to visit our families but if we got demerits we would be restricted to the base.

The academics started at the college level and got worse. The first month we spent all day in classes, after that we broke the day into classes and flying. Half a day class and the other flying. We would have a lot of studying and homework afterwards so we did not have spare time, that and keeping our rooms perfect, the pressure was intense. Our classes included basic Army stuff, medical, meteorology, survival, aerodynamics, navigation, map reading, how to be an officer, helicopter mechanics, history of flight and how to fly, just to name a few.

After the first month we went to the airfield and received our helicopter training. At first it was aircraft mechanics, how to pre-flight, the basics of flight, filing flight plans, flight rules, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), and emergency procedures. Emergency procedures was tough; we had to memorize every imaginable helicopter emergency and the proper procedure. Peggy would help me with this, she became as good as I was. JI would sit in a chair and she would call out the emergency and I would have to immediately respond with the action. It got worse when I started flying.

After the first week we were assigned our check pilot, each check pilot had two students. My check pilot was an old thin bald man with scars on his head. He smoked a corncob pipe that reminded me of Popeye the Sailor. I was fortunate because he was very nice and treated us well, others were not so lucky. I will never forget the first time I flew with him, he made it look so easy which was deceiving. We flew a Hughes 300 that we called the LOB, little orange b... It was a two place piston engine helicopter. The military purposelyused this aircraft because it was so hard to fly, if you could fly this, you could fly any helicopter. It had a governor on it that would reduce the engine power if you used too many rpms. It went nuts if you over reved the engine. Okay, so what? Well, hovering is the most difficult thing about flying a helicopter. Many people could not learn how to hover, or to “hit the hover button.” It is kind of like learning to ride a bike, you practice and practice, then one day you miraculously can do it. It is not something to can do just because you want to no matter how determined you were. Several candidates were phased out because after 10 hours they never could hit the hover button. It was crazy the first time in the aircraft. Mr. (we called our check pilot Mr.) took off and demonstrated hovering and then gave the controls to me. Well that was the end of it! No more nice and easy hovering… You see a helicopter is totally different from an airplane. You have three things you must control simultaneously, the cyclic which controlled your attitude, left right, forward and backwards, the collective which controls the pitch of the main rotor (up and down) and the pedals which controlled the tail rotor (turning the aircraft left, right and in a circle). And example, when you reduced the collective (power) the torque changed and so you must adjust the other control accordingly. You must coordinate these simultaneously, absolutely nuts! I first took the cyclic only and was all over the place, then the collective only, the same, and pedals, well you know. So after a few days of this Mr. gave all the controls to me and… I would have died if not for Mr.  We were all over the place, up, down, sideways, backwards all at the same time. About the time of death Mr. took the controls, put his index finger on the cyclic and the aircraft immediately stabilized. This made me feel really confident. :o[  So after many days of practice Mr. said “let me off here”, he got out and told me to solo and take it around the pattern. Scared was I, yes, but I did it successfully. Yay! Peggy was able be there and watch me learning to hover and then solo. I got some interesting comments from her…

After the LOB we transitioned into a Huey, UH-1. The Huey is a single engine turbine aircraft, very reliable and much nicer than the LOB. It had two pilots, two crew chief/gunners and a total of 11 passengers. This is the aircraft that I flew most during the rest of my time in the Army, ending up with 3000 hours.

Instruments was next. It was the most difficult time in flight school but made somewhat easier as I was an air traffic controller and knew a little about it. I did very well all through the course, in academics and flight. At the end my instructor put me up with a high grade (the final grade was a combination of my instructor and my final test pilot). During flight training and check flights I wore a “hood” over my eyes so I could only see the instruments and not outside the aircraft; it was intense at times. Anyway, I got a check pilot (different from my instructor pilot) that was tough, much to my dismay. I did great all the way through until I got to the ADF approach. An ADF approach is an old instrument approach to an airport. It was the most difficult of all the approaches, the others were VOR, ILS and ground radar approach. So I thought I did pretty well until the end and could not find the airport. The check pilot said I had failed the approach and I had one more chance; the stress increased exponentially. Well I did the same thing, failed the approach and the check ride. I found out that the RMI, a radio compass indicator was broken, way off and as I used it for the approach I lined up on a different heading from the airport. I was supposed to periodically check the RMI with my magnetic compass (a regular compass) which I did not do. The check pilot could have said something but didn’t, the jerk. So I went back to my instructor pilot for more training. I had one more try to pass or I would be thrown out of flight school, two strikes and you are out! I aced my next check ride, whew!

The last part of flight school was tactics which was pretty fun. I was taught about flying in the real world, how to use a map and navigate plus how to survive in combat. We learned what the enemy looked like and how they fought. We flew at night for the first time and flew without a check pilot, just me and my copilot. We would be required to take off and fly to several different locations day and night. We flew with passengers and had them repel from the aircraft as we hovered. We learned how to sling load objects. I would hover over a jeep with a sling, the crew chief would attach it to the jeep and I would increase lift and pick it up and take it somewhere. Luckily the jeep was a piece of junk because I dropped one from 50 feet. LOne of the last things we did in tactics was flying with night vision goggles. These were the first generation goggles, they were poor in vision, everything was green and there was no depth of vision. All that and they were heavy! The goggles itself hung from the front of your helmet and the large battery hung from the back of the helmet. It was very fatiguing… and flying with goggles was intense and stressful, very. We were restricted to four hours of flight, normally you would fly eight hours in a day. With goggles you could easily run into something and kill yourself and all on board. The copilot would watch the aircraft instruments because you couldn’t see them.  The goggles of today, 36 years later are light and much more hi-tech.

So after 10 months I was promoted to Warrant Officer First Class and Peggy pinned on my wings Warrant Officer rank. Yahoo!

We took leave and decided to go to Casa Grande, Arizona where my mother lived, and buy a house for the family to stay while I was in Korea for a year. On our way to Arizona we stopped in Texas and visited with my grandmother, Eva Lesley and her son, my birth father Tommy Donham (John Thomas Donham III). It was a nice time visiting as we were able to introduce Ben and Sandy to them.

Korea: My first assignment after flight school was in Chun Chon, Korea. This was a town in northern South Korea of about 100,000 people. Ben Harden was a classmate of mine and he was assigned there as well. We landed in Seoul, the capital and then were flown to Camp Page in Chun Chon by a UH-1.

Camp Page was a small Army artillery base of about 500 soldiers. We lived in Quonset huts with two officers per room; Ben was my roommate. There was an officer’s club on base that served Korean and American food. The Church was in Chun Chon and four missionaries were stationed there. I would invite the missionaries to eat at the officer’s club so they could have an American meal once in a while. One time we had a “greenie” and he ordered trout. I mentioned that it was customary to eat the whole fish, head and all. He did!

As far I knew I was the only Latter Day Saint on base, but there was a Korean ward in the city. Being in the Church for only 3 years, I was set apart in Seoul as a group leader which was smaller than a branch. The missionaries would come and help with the sacrament and we had several investigators come to the meeting, including Ben.

We basically flew in northern South Korea, flew ROK, Republic of Korea troops, artillery support and flew the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). I took training and received certification to be a DMZ pilot flying ROK Generals along the DMZ. It was a dangerous duty; if you crossed the DMZ you would be shot down.

We usually flew troop transport that included flying formation. We would flew very close to each aircraft; the pilot constantly watched the closest aircraft to ours while the copilot watched the instruments and the map.

Northern South Korea was beautiful; loads of mountains, trees, rivers and lakes and flying was great!

I spent a year in Korea which included a visit home half way through. I had a short stay there then back to Korea.

I had my first friend die in Korea. John was an attack helicopter (AH-1) pilot and the aircraft had a hydraulic malfunction and crashed. Both pilots were killed. My buddy Ben Harden was killed later in a crash.

Fort Hood: So after Korea in 1979 we got stationed at Fort Hood. I flew the UH-1 as a VIP pilot. I enjoyed Fort Hood, it was a friendly place. Killeen was a small town next to the fort. We bought a nice house on Carmen Street. It was perfect for out little family. Heidi was born there in 1980, Tommy in 1982 and Ben started school there. After a while I was transferred to a military intelligence company that had special helicopters that were used for intercepting enemy radio messages. We had the normal group of pilots, crew chiefs and mechanics, plus we had translators. They spoke a variety of languages, Russian, Spanish and a variation of Slovak languages. It was different and fun, one of the reasons I liked the Army was that I got to do a diversity of jobs; every three or four years we were moved to another place.

Germany again: In 1983 I got orders for Germany with a three month stop at Fort Rucker to learn to fly the Chinook, CH-47. The CH-47 was a huge helicopter, heavy lift, used for moving artillery canons, vehicles and supplies. It could lift 28,000 pounds. It was a different aircraft to fly, it was also unique because it floated and could do water missions. One of the missions I flew for the CH-47 was to fly nuclear warheads around in Germany to hide them from the Russians. I had to have a top secret clearance for this job.

Southern Germany is lovely, lots of trees and mountains. Peggy and I learned to snow ski in the Alps of southern Germany. The kids did too, skiing and snow sledding. Peggy and I went to Switzerland to ski the Swiss Alps several times, it was a great experience and beautiful countryside.

Fort Hood again: We returned to the States in 1986, stationed at Ft. Hood. I again was assigned as a VIP pilot. Eventually I was selected for the 3rd Corps General pilot, a three star general. I also flew the second in command, a two star. It was an interesting job, but very stressful, flying at night, in all kinds of weather and under goggles.

During my time in the Army, I lost several friends, one in Viet Nam, and one in Korea and several at other times. I was blessed because I never had a serious emergency, got shot down or had to fly in actual combat. The first Iraq war started August 1990, shortly after I retired from the military. My friends flew then… not a nice experience.

Retired: So, I was happily flying the Generals. I had made a deal with my Colonel to stop me from going back to Korea and I would do the job. Korea was an unaccompanied tour and I was tired of that, Viet Nam, Korea and numerous trips overseas. After several months the Colonel told me that he could not stop me being sent to Korea, so I decided to retire. I had over 20 years in the Army and that was enough for me to get my full retirement. I was disappointed because I was looking to get my next promotion to Warrant Office Fourth Class. I had all my tickets punched, great officer efficiency reports, top military education as well as getting my bachelor degree. But, I decided enough was enough: the Colonel said that he could make the change and it didn’t happen. The general was fine with my decision and understood, but the Colonel was livid. So be it.

The Seagulls And The Clams
LaRae Ficklin

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Utah South Area FHTC Legacies (website) on Tuesday, 02 June 2015 03:23

Quite exciting life, John. This is quite a bit to try to get through, and I suggest that we take it in smaller "bite-size" pieces and chapters. For example, the Vietnam era could be separated from the previous section.
Great story! Lots of detail--almost like I was there (thank goodness I wasn't). I'd be in a totally different place than now.

Quite exciting life, John. This is quite a bit to try to get through, and I suggest that we take it in smaller "bite-size" pieces and chapters. For example, the Vietnam era could be separated from the previous section. Great story! Lots of detail--almost like I was there (thank goodness I wasn't). I'd be in a totally different place than now. :D