KURTZ: --2nd, 2009 and it's snowing hard. And I'm in the office of BobHesselbein in Middleton, Wisconsin at his home. Bob, where and when were you born?
HESSELBEIN: Well, I was born in Cleveland, Ohio on June 26, 1952.
KURTZ: June 16th?
HESSELBEIN: June 26th.
KURTZ: Okay. And is that where you-- was it '47? My mind is-- what year?
KURTZ: Okay. And is that where you grew up?
HESSELBEIN: Yeah, actually. I was raised in the suburbs of Cleveland and endedup being inducted into the Army and enlisting into the Army September 1 of 1970, right out of high school.
KURTZ: Okay. And you went to high school in Cleveland?
HESSELBEIN: Suburb called Maple Heights.
KURTZ: Maple Heights. And what year was that? 1970 you graduated?
HESSELBEIN: Graduated in June of 1970.
KURTZ: Okay. And when you were growing up, did the Vietnam War have anyimpression on you?
HESSELBEIN: Well, you know, I can spend a few minutes talking to that. I think I00:01:00was probably like so many kids of our generation. And these have been well described in other books and things. But essentially, we were raised the children of the World War Two veterans. My father was a Navy veteran, all my uncles all served in World War Two. And it was pretty much an expected thing that we would serve. And I was always, as a boy, I was never really big into sports because I was rather small. And for me, though, it was always Army. Always going to be a soldier, always an officer. And the movies at the time, the bloodless fighting on TV shows like Combat and 12 O'Clock High and things like that. There was a glory to it. And also the memories that were shared by my 00:02:00uncles. And they were always generally funny stories or ironic stories or things such as that they were always sort of anecdotal experiences. My father would talk about being awoken in the middle of the night on the ship that he was on, and he thought they were under attack and was actually just a ship dropping excess depth charges without telling anyone else. Always that sort of thing. Although I did have uncles who saw severe violence at Peleliu and Okinawa and Saipan and also in the Northern European [inaudible]--
KURTZ: Was there any noticeable difference with the ones that saw some heavycombat? In their attitudes?
HESSELBEIN: I don't know whether so much of it was attitude so much as theyavoided the ugly stories. They avoided the ugliness. The Northern European men would talk about how cold it was. And my father would talk about not being able to get off the ship for months at a time. And my uncle, who served and saw a lot of violence in the Marine Corps in the Pacific, would talk about his hate for the Japanese that still existed and the horribleness of it all. But no details. 00:03:00Never any details when I was a kid growing up.
KURTZ: Did that transfer? Did that impress you as a racism or was it justbecause of the war, this hate of the Japanese?
HESSELBEIN: Well, yeah. On reflection, I believe it was probably hated theJapanese because of war, but it was easier to make them aliens. And, you know, as an adult, we look at it as racist. But as a kid, your mind goes, these are the facts, you know? You don't put a moral judgment on the comments your relatives are making.
KURTZ: Offline you mentioned that one of your uncles was a movie actor.
HESSELBEIN: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, we talked about actors and movies.And to me, John Wayne was just another relative. We never called him Uncle John, of course, But whenever I see a movie with John Wayne, I sort of transposed one of my uncles into whatever action he was doing in whatever movie he was doing. 00:04:00Like Sands of Iwo Jima, I think was the classic one where he was just one of my uncles. Probably my Uncle Pete. Or Uncle Pete knew him. That was just sort of the image we had. And once again, even that movie was bloodless. It was a bloodless movie. And there was no smells, it was all black and white.
KURTZ: Okay. So, you decided on the Army and the war was winding down to that in1970 when you entered.
HESSELBEIN: Well, it was an interesting time being from the suburbs ofCleveland. You know, I watched Vietnam. It was a TV movie to me. It was a TV show. It was the evening news. I didn't really know any relatives who had served in Vietnam, who would be just a little bit older than me. I didn't really know anyone who had been there except I knew high school, Maple Heights High School 00:05:00graduates had gone in the Army and gone to Vietnam, but I never really saw them. As I was getting close to graduation, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was one of those lost kids who had the aptitude but didn't really have a focused ambition. But I always saw myself as a military man playing with hundreds of plastic soldiers over the years. If you go back to my childhood home, you probably find plastic soldiers embedded in the lawns of God knows where. Even today. I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I always knew being an officer certainly had to be better than being an enlisted guy just because of, you know, the heroes. And in so many of these movies were either sergeants or lieutenants. So I thought, well, that would be the way to go. And then I began to be steered towards-- friends said, well, you're going to get drafted anyway. And with my number, I was. I forget what my lottery number was, but I was prime for the draft. So I started to look into it and I decided, someone said, well, you can become an air traffic controller and that's a career you can do after the military. And then a friend of mine said, well, you have the chance to become a pilot. You can fly airplanes. And this friend of mine flew airplanes. 00:06:00As a matter of fact, he went on to become a Navy captain, deeply involved in airplanes. But at the time, I thought that was really the way to go. So I interviewed and recruiters were very happy to say, well, I'm sure you can become an airplane pilot in the Army. Most of the guys are to fly helicopters first. And I, of course, thought about Vietnam. The war was drawing down and we sort of had this intrinsic inclusion of, well, there's a chance I could go there, but by the time I'm done, surely it'll be over because that's another year for when I go in. But I could get there at the earliest. And it was an interesting time because prior to graduation there was the invasion of Laos and Cambodia in April 1970, which then led to the university unrest. And I only lived a few miles from Kent State University, and I had friends there, friends who came back after they 00:07:00shut down the university on May 4th when the shootings occurred, very upset by what they saw at the National Guardsmen. And it was a terror between my family who was very conservative, saying, well, the shooter shot more students because you do not disagree with your government, because the government knows more than you. And we're over there stopping godless communism from using the domino effect to take Hawaii and come to California. And it was a very simplistic model. So I was torn and I read quite a bit about Vietnam. All the books, Fire in the Night, much of Bernard Fall's writing, Street Without Joy, Hell In A [Very] Small Place, but I never quite believe it. I always believe that we were there as crusaders to stop communism from taking over the democratically elected government of South Vietnam. And the South Vietnamese wanted us there to help them become strong enough to resist this outside attack, or called the North Vietnamese and the insidious Viet Cong. So based on that, I said, well, this is a conundrum, but I believe that we're there for the right thing. So I enlisted 00:08:00in the Army, and on September 1, found myself at Cleveland Hopkins Airport saying goodbye to my family and flying to Dallas-Fort Worth Love Field and then onto Leadville and into Fort Polk, Louisiana for basic training.
KURTZ: Is there anything that stands out in your mind about basic training atFort Polk?
HESSELBEIN: Yeah, it was sort of an interesting thing. All the drill sergeants,of course, had spent time in Vietnam as infantrymen. And in retrospect, they all seemed like giants to me as a young 18-year-old skinny kid. But when I reflected back on the fact that the first sergeant was addicted to codeine and oftentimes some of the drill sergeants would appear drunken, and then about the fifth week 00:09:00of our eight weeks of basic training, our Company D42, and I can still remember the slogan: Better Than The Best Drill Sergeant. We were called upon to help put down a uprising in the post stockade, which for me was pretty, pretty terrifying. And I saw nothing. I stood outside with the other 100 plus soldiers in our company, or I should say, trainees at that point. And it seemed like hell. It seemed like a very hard thing. And then we graduated and we took-- hopped on a bus and drove west from Fort Polk across northern Texas through Dallas, Fort Worth, and found ourselves at Fort Wolters, Texas, which is just on the periphery of a small town called Mineral Wells. And that's where warrant officer candidate training was established. And after one week of what we call 00:10:00the "snowbird" experience, waiting to be assigned to a class, I ended up joining 125-- 124 others, but the 125 man class of 7902.
KURTZ: And how many weeks was that class?
HESSELBEIN: It was almost a year. We started--
KURTZ: So, this was actually flight school together with warrant officer--
HESSELBEIN: Correct. It was a warrant officer candidate school and pilottraining at the same time. We were very jealous of the commission officers who were going through pilot training with us because they were treated with respect relative to us and got per diem and we, of course, were getting-- we looked at escaping to the classroom on the flight line as a way to get away from our TAC officers. So we're doing a fine job of weeding out those who probably didn't have that characteristic needed to be a good officer and perhaps a good pilot. We started with 125 and by the time our group got to Fort Rucker and graduated, and on October 17th of 1971, we were down to 42 graduates. So it was quite a attrition process. Some for flying skills, some for academics and a lot for military bearing. But only a handful, only a few, possibly no more than I would say three, quit on their own. 00:11:00
KURTZ: Through this time, you said that you were fairly idealistic when you wentinto the military about what was going on. Did this change at all, being exposed to Vietnam veterans?
HESSELBEIN: No, actually, because the people that I met at that point, they weresaying, well, the war is messed up because we don't like our rules of engagement, what it takes to engage the enemy and we don't like this and we don't like that, and oh, you're not going to get enough water. They talk about personal discomfort and frustration with some of the policies, but no one at that time was saying, "we're doomed, it's a lost war, what are we doing over there?" You're in this organization and you're preparing to go and remember, they do a pretty good job of saying to you, your purpose isn't to interpret why you're going. Your purpose is to be prepared to go.
HESSELBEIN: Also, the helicopter pilots who are our TAC officers, instructors,were highly decorated. We did have some very, I say, cold moments. I can remember being in Fort Wolters, Texas during the Lam Son 719 invasion of 1971. 00:12:00And we were sitting in the day room and it was on a Saturday, I believe, because we were all pretty relaxed. And at that point we were about four and a half months into the program. Maybe longer. And those who were there felt pretty confident of our progress, that we weren't scared to death of washing out of a plane. And we are watching videos taken at Khe Sanh and they show this covert gunship come and land and they pulled this pilot out of the front seat of this Cobra gunship and they lay him face down on a stretcher. And they essentially took him away with his face down, his hands dragging in the dirt. And there was no doubt in our mind that he was dead. It left us with chills because we all 00:13:00looked at each other and said, is that something we're going to see? Is that something we're going to participate in? But it didn't cause anyone to leave because [inaudible] that thing is sort of like, A, I'm really not going to go, or B, I'm going to make it. I'm going to survive. I feel sorry for the guy next to me who might get killed, but I'm going to be just fine.
KURTZ: You said in your basic training, you had a bunch of NCOs that had somesubstance abuse problems. Did that make any impact on you as far as why they were all that way?
HESSELBEIN: Well, they weren't all that way with us. And when they were doingtheir duties, when we were marching out to the range or in training, they were squirrely. But every so often they would show up late at night, sometimes on a weekend, either intoxicated or on something. And that always kind of shocked me. But they were the macho men. Part of your brain said, well, perhaps that's how you're supposed to be. Yeah, that's what you do to cope. And by the way, that's 00:14:00kind of cool. If they're doing it, it must be cool. But I, of course, never really got into that at all. Being this little 18-year-old kid.
KURTZ: So is there anything that stands out about the flight training otherthan, I mean, the deaths video obviously is a pretty stark thing.
HESSELBEIN: Well, what I was always amazed by was, once again, the thought oflearning to fly helicopters, not an easy feat when you have no background in flying whatsoever. And I do remember my first solo work. Everyone worries if you don't solo within 10 hours or so, you're washed out of the program. You have to be able to demonstrate you can fly this thing alone. And everyone was waiting, when am I going to get a chance to solo or will I get solo? So when the instructor said, okay, you take it around the pattern by yourself a couple 00:15:00times. He got out and I was scared to death and I was so nervous. And I brought it to a hover and it was the most raggedy, bouncy, sort of not sure what I'm doing. I put the thing back down on the ground and I stop for a minute and I said, oh, is he going to come back out here and say, "Okay, kid, let's do this for 30 more minutes [inaudible]." But he didn't come out. So I got my courage up and I flew around that pattern and by the third loop around the pattern, I thought I was a rock star. Not a rock star because I impressed anybody other than the fact I impressed myself that I could do this thing. And that was a moment that's never really been duplicated anywhere. And I think that's probably a virgin experience for every pilot, whether it's on a fixed wing or a helicopter. But that was amazing. Other recollections I have: I do remember, I believe that part of what helped me get through this arduous, arduous training was I believe I kind of became a mascot for the TAC officers because I had this awful last name called Hesselbein. And they would twist that around and call it "Hiessel-bean" and try to get my goat. And they would do these things with name 00:16:00tags that you had to make up out of a piece of tape that was carefully laid on doors. And they would mess with those and I was constantly recreating them to this fine art. But I think they admire the fact that I took it, that I didn't get angry. And after a while, they realized I had a sense of humor and they could actually harass me more and they knew I was laughing on the inside. And I think that's something they liked.
HESSELBEIN: And one other thing, too. Once I graduated from that, I went toHunter Army Airfield.
HESSELBEIN: And I was this working-class kid from a very protected neighborhood.And I showed up there as this WO1, the lowest ranking officer, I think, in the world. And you're not even commissioned, you're a point above the secretary of the Army. And I show up there--
KURTZ: So, you weren't' a gentleman yet then, either.
HESSELBEIN: I think they make you a gentleman, but you're not an officer.
HESSELBEIN: But you end up-- I'll never forget, they said, you have to join the00:17:00officer's club. You have to write a check out for your dues. And I said, I don't have a check. What's a check? I don't know how to write a check. And Captain named Tim [Marie??], who I'm still friends with today, took me down to the bank on the base and said, son, we're going to set you up with a checking account. And he taught me how to write checks and how this whole thing works. And Tim's story had a sad outcome, but he's still alive today. He never did a full term in Vietnam because he always got wounded before he got-- cut his whole year down. But they were my mentors, and I can honestly say I had a good family. But like I said, they were very, very simple, very working class. Didn't think into things much. I can't say they were heavily intellectual. And I got in with a bunch of young Army lieutenants and captains who were college graduates who took me under their wing and educated me on many, many, many things.
KURTZ: Oh, that's real interesting. When did you first get in-- what was theprogression of the different aircraft that you flew?
HESSELBEIN: In the Army-- well, pilot training, we all start out in this-- two00:18:00choices: the TH-55 or OH-23. And we were all checked out in a huge TH-55 in ground school. But while we were in ground school, wintertime in Texas, they had the doors on these helicopters. They had two fall out of the sky where the pilots were getting carbon monoxide poisoning, going unconscious and crashing. So we left for-- we actually got Christmas leave right after we were done with preflight, which was like, a month of hell. Just horrible, horrible hell. And we'd studied the systems on the TH-55. And we were just getting ready to take the bus over to Dallas-Fort Worth to get the heck back to our homes for a week or so. And I had a soldier said, When you get back, you're going to be flying this other aircraft. [inaudible] So read all these books and that's your assignment over the leave. And when you come back, there will be a quick test 00:19:00and then boom, you got to find these other things, which are Korean War vintage helicopters. So that's what we did, and it worked out okay. So then when we got to Fort Rucker after having flown this OH-23 and being very proud of being a graduate of the primary flight school, we went to advance flight school, which was Bell 13s, which were used to teach us insurance. By the way, we were [inaudible] and we could essentially get into a cloud, turn 180 degrees and get out of the cloud before we crashed in the ground. And that's all we could do with instruments. But then we all checked out in the love of our life, the UH-1 Huey, as it's called, and we got to check out an old B models. The earliest models on a few of these high powered but we thought at the time D models which had the much larger compartment in the back and we just thought those are amazing. You get to fly these things and get to do tactical operations. But even while we were there, they were saying, Well, you're not doing tactical operations like we used to do here in 1969 and 1970 because, well, you're 00:20:00probably not going to deploy out to the field because of Army Division where they would have field operations where you'd live in tents. those are pretty much done in Vietnam because we're all coming home and you may not even go. Although attack officer had said to us the very first day at Fort Walton that the nastiness of this OCS began, he said, you're all going to Vietnam. Every last one of you, and 10 percent of you will die. And we just said, okay. And then we had this change at Fort Rucker. But they still said, you're all going to Vietnam and you're probably not going to be in the big war because the big war is over. So--
KURTZ: Nothing changes. When I went to officer base, it was the same.
HESSELBEIN: Yes, same way, same model. So, for me, an exciting time came. Thereason I wanted to be this great medevac pilot. I was going to be the hero rescuing the dying and I'll have this beautiful white helicopter in the Red Cross or something like that. And then one day I was flying in our Hueys and we're doing formation flying. Six of us flying trail. And we saw this skinny thing go racing passed us and it went in front of us and it looked like a shark 00:21:00of a helicopter. Went around us and then disappeared in the distance. And I said, I don't know what that is, but I'd like to fly one of those. And that was a Cobra gunship. So, I set my heart on flying this Cobra gunship. And there's also another conniving reason because I fly a lot, I go, you know, I'm number three in the formation now. And if the guy shoots at the second one and misses that, he might hit me. So do I want to be the duck flying in a group? Or do you want to be that lone shark? It's only about 42 inches wide, it's got rockets and machine guns and all sorts of nasty weapons on board. Which would I prefer to shoot in? And that was another reason why the Cobra was attractive to me. So, I worked very hard during pilot training, and I was able to achieve an assignment into the Cobra gunship, which was really the fighter aircraft of the helicopter world.
KURTZ: So, that was kind of a prestigious assignment?
KURTZ: At that point, that was the gunship because when I was in Vietnam, forthe most part, they were still using Bs or something like that as gunships.
HESSELBEIN: Yeah, the progression of helicopter gunships in Vietnam was they00:22:00took Hueys and they put arms sticking out the side and they would hang rocket pods and machine guns, then mini guns onto the Hueys. But it was sort of a slapdash together thing and they said we needed a dedicated platform to use as an attack helicopter. And really the backbone, the spine of the Cobra, the frame of the cover started out as a UH-1 and it was modified by Bell Company, Bell Helicopter Company. They transformed this thing, this Cobra gunship, which was much more sophisticated, much sleeker, much faster. And an interesting little anecdote: among the Huey pilots, and by the way, we've all flown Hueys. For years they called you a "slick". And I didn't understand why they called Hueys slicks. Well, they're talking about the troop carriers. They're called slicks because they're slick on the side, they don't have weapons [inaudible] hanging out. And I never knew that for years.
HESSELBEIN: Yeah, [inaudible]--
KURTZ: I knew that a long time ago. [Laughter]
HESSELBEIN: Well, I didn't! Why do you call these guys slick drivers? Well, the00:23:00helicopters were slick. They didn't have things hanging.
HESSELBEIN: They had gunship pilots and slick drivers.
KURTZ: Yeah. Because they had-- essentially to the [inaudible], they looked thesame at one point. It was just whether they had the, I would say, weapons arms. They have the same engine in the--
HESSELBEIN: Yes. Originally they did have the same transmissions, same engine.They had different rotor system than the Hueys had. They had much thicker blades, I think, to compensate for the speed and the aerodynamics. The rotor blades were different on a Cobra gunship. And over time, those got modified as well to different shapes to figure out what was the best aerodynamics for a rotor system. But they also had-- it was sophisticated. It had stabilization augmentation system, which helped the thing fly smoother than the Huey had. And it also air conditions, something that we like very much. Yes. 00:24:00
KURTZ: That's nice. As far as your training with the Hueys, did they work onlanding in very tight situations?
HESSELBEIN: You did land in the Hueys-- even when you're flying at FortWolter's, flying is always 23. We have what we call confined planning-- confined areas. And they three different types of tires. They had white, yellow and red, I think it was. And then there was black tires or some sort of tire area that was restricted. No one can go in there. And they actually put these on areas where when people get confused and try landing in there. And when we fly solo, we were always allowed to land in these white tire areas, we would call it. And one time we had a-- not my class but another class of pilots that washed out because he landed and you're supposed to actually get out and look at the back of the helicopter, figure out how far you could back up to get a little speed up 00:25:00to get out the flight tire area. And he decided to take a break and he laid down and fell asleep and they thought he was over doing [inaudible]. They're trying to wake this this guy up and they couldn't get into the field that he was the sound sleep underneath his helicopter. And that was his last flight. But one time, I decided to shoot that approach into what I thought was a white tire area and seemed kind of small but I saw the white tire. Here I came, training approach and I was getting close to trees. I realized that wasn't a white tire down there. It was an old, abandoned washing machine.
HESSELBEIN: And so I land. Oh.
KURTZ: What about training with overweight? Because, I mean, that was a real--
HESSELBEIN: Never trained with overweight. Never trained with overweight at all.It was a problem in Southeast Asia. But remember, you were always going to go there as a copilot. When you showed up in Vietnam as the pilot, you were probably OJT. On the job, training. And you showed up in Vietnam, really because even the Cobra pilots, essentially, they taught you the system and then they let you go out and do some cursory shooting with the weapons and then you were sent on your way and you fly in the backseat as an aircraft commander with pilot training. But when you showed up in Vietnam, you'd fly in the front seat as the copilot gunner and you would man the weapons systems in the front, which was generally minigun and a 40-millimeter grenade launcher and a 40 [inaudible] 00:26:00grenade launcher had a rate of fire of 400 rounds per minute. And we'd always say, well, we only carried 400 rounds, but it was where you fire them all off. You only fired 15 second bursts.
HESSELBEIN: And we loved the minigun, of course. Just the firehose of tracers.
KURTZ: As far as what did they tell you, because weight was such an issue,particularly with slick pilots, you know, like with the heat and all that kind of stuff. What did they--
HESSELBEIN: Well, they would-- in the States, we studied density altitudes andhow that influenced the ability of the helicopter to operate based on weights and also handling.
HESSELBEIN: But once again, a lot of that stuff was set up for-- you would learnthat when you got to Vietnam, because you'd be able to watch a lot of your aircraft commander. And frankly, even that was different depending on where you were.
KURTZ: Well, sure.
HESSELBEIN: Mekong Delta, you would get hot during the day and you probablycouldn't carry quite as much on those Cobras. In the delta, we were generally in good shape. But at the Central Highlands, where I was served the latter half of 00:27:00my tour, there was-- density altitude was critical. You could take off from Pleiku in the morning with a full load or almost a full load of fuel, with a full load of munitions. But once you got Can Tho, which was a much hotter, higher elevation place, you could possibly do that because of the heat of the day. And more than once we'd seen an aircraft come back and forget how much fuel they're supposed to have on and just sit there and be burning and burning and burning their fuel out because they couldn't hover off the fueling pad. I saw that more than once.
HESSELBEIN: So, yeah, density altitude. For the Huey pilots, they would justliterally generally say, I can carry X number of guys. And we generally carried Vietnamese by that time to work. That was a great period of Vietnamization. And we occasionally carried U.S. troops but not very, very frequently. 00:28:00
KURTZ: What was the difference in the number that you could carry Americans [inaudible]--
HESSELBEIN: I think flying-- I'm not that familiar the H models which was thepredominant Huey over there, but I would say somewhere between 6 to 8 grunts, U.S. grunts, with all their stuff on a cool day. Vietnamese, we could probably get 12. The guys were so little and tiny and [inaudible]. They tend to not to go out equipped for [inaudible] like our troops would. Unless, of course, and I can talk later about the experience that I saw with the Vietnamese army.
KURTZ: Okay. Well, let's finish up with training in-- what type of gunnerytraining did you get as a--
HESSELBEIN: Gunnery trainee, it was almost on the fringe of World War Two.Everything was high altitude diving. Everything was done from what we call box 00:29:00patterns, where you literally roll in a 15-degree rocket past-- rocket dive, 15-degree dive. Normally you start somewhere around 2000 feet in training, and you'd shoot your rockets and be out by a thousand feet above the ground. And of course, you pull your nose up, the downward vector still takes you down maybe 800 feet. It was all very much canned. Everything we did was really more familiarization training. You didn't come out of there saying, Boy, I'm really a good rocket shooter or I'm really good strafer. You came out saying, wow, I can't wait to do this for real.
KURTZ: Did you have any ground-- well, controller's the wrong thing. But from myexperience as an infantryman, you would call for the help and then you would talk either to the [inaudible] or the helicopter pilot, depending on what the situation was about, where you were. Do you get into any of that kind of training?
HESSELBEIN: That's a great question. No, the answer was absolutely not. When wewent through it was strictly this is how the aircraft flies, these are the 00:30:00systems and this is how the aircraft shoots. You'll learn all that when you get to Vietnam. Now, they may have given some sort of cursory instructions, but next to nothing as far as that world of engagement, tactical employment, parallel to friendlies as opposed to over flying friendlies, those kind of rules. You know, we heard anecdotal stories about you'd see this and you'd see that when you get to Vietnam. But there was nothing at all. It was strictly academics.
KURTZ: That's interesting.
KURTZ: Is there anything more about training that we should talk about?
HESSELBEIN: Well, the only thing, a little anecdote thing was one of the thingsI was very impressed by when we went through this OTS period was we could pick out-- we had peer evaluation.
HESSELBEIN: And we literally would sit around and talk about things such as,should this guy make it through? And we literally suggested to certain guys to wash out because they weren't cooperating. We shared three candidates [inaudible] and you would come across those who didn't help. You come across those who were into themselves. They wouldn't participate or they'd have-- 00:31:00[BREAK IN RECORDING]
KURTZ: You were talking about the pure evaluation, so you can--
HESSELBEIN: Right. We had peer evaluations at Fort Wolters and Fort Rucker, andwe literally use that to help ensure that those who probably didn't achieve the standards didn't get to be part of the standard.
HESSELBEIN: And there were two individuals that we debated saying, well, shouldwe suggest that they not make it? You know, we'd actually sit down in groups.
HESSELBEIN: Which is kind of cruel in a way. But I mean, it was sort ofpragmatic at the time. And what ended up happening was the two that we debated and felt-- let's take a group vote and I kind of thought maybe they should make it through, but what did I know? and as it turned, out of those that we doubted, the only two that became great disappointments-- I take it back, there were 00:32:00three, but the two that we said shouldn't make it through ended up big mistakes. They both survived the military, but one later refused to go to Vietnam. And then another one, just embarrassed himself in so many ways. So, it's interesting that our peer evaluation program seemed to work. And we gave people the benefit of the doubt beyond our best emotions if they ended up doing poorly.
KURTZ: What were you instructed by the leadership on this peer evaluation as faras criteria?
HESSELBEIN: They essentially said, hey, if there's someone around you that's nota team player, if there's someone around you that you're having trouble working with now because they're not pulling their load and we're not seeing it, you let us know. You let us know because they're not pulling their load here. They're not going to pull up in combat.
HESSELBEIN: And they were right.
KURTZ: Okay, that's interesting because I'm not familiar with it with somethinglike that happening. Anything else about the training?
HESSELBEIN: Yes. One thing that gave me the shivers. So, many of our academicinstructors, and they were contracted academic instructors, were helicopter pilot veterans, and many of them were burn victims. They were medically 00:33:00discharged and medically retired because the burns they occurred in helicopter crashes or accidents or shoot downs. And I'll never forget one instructor writing on a chalkboard with what was left of his thumb and one finger. And that's all he had on one hand. And they were just extensions off his hand. You couldn't really call them fingers because there were no fingernails. The other hand was a twisted, clenched claw because he was what we referred to less than affectionately as crispy critters because they crashed and burned. The crashing and burning was a horrible part of our fear because these helicopters so frequently burned when they went down.
KURTZ: Oh, yeah.
HESSELBEIN: So that that's probably the most chilling thing.00:34:00
KURTZ: Did that get you thinking "what am I doing here?" At all or--?
HESSELBEIN: No, to me it's just part of the drama. If I could use that word,it's sort of a dramatic-- I'm doing something bigger than myself. I mean, something bigger than--
KURTZ: And it was that thing, that's always going to be the other guy anyway, sowhy worry about it?
HESSELBEIN: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. You feel sorry for that other poor guy who'sgoing to suffer that, but you're not going to have to suffer that.
KURTZ: Now, did you have leave before you went to Vietnam?
HESSELBEIN: Yeah, I did. And it was 30 days of leave. And I will never forgethow proud I was to be a warrant officer. I had this flight jacket with this Cobra patch on my jacket and I just thought I was the cat's meow. And it was funny getting home because everyone was tired of the war.
HESSELBEIN: And everyone was sort of giving this look like, well, okay, you'regoing to Vietnam. And some of my friends privately and especially the girls were going, Why? Why do you possibly want to do what you're going to do? And I was so gung ho. I was so proud I had achieved this thing. I'd survived OCS. I was a helicopter pilot, by God, I'm a helicopter pilot! Off I go. And of course, my 00:35:00father was distraught. Never said it publicly but when the time came for me to leave, he couldn't say goodbye, he just had to walk away.
HESSELBEIN: Just too hard. My mother was kind of gung ho. Good, you're off tostop the godless communists. And that was kind of ironic thing because her memories of the soldiers in World War Two was one of supporting them.
KURTZ: Where were you walking around in your home area in uniform?
HESSELBEIN: Never wore my uniform. Never wore my uniform. I wear my flightjacket because I was cool. I had my shiny warrant officer brass on and my Cobra patch. And that was kind of cool. And remember, my friends were all, by that time, 19-- or 18-year-olds. Just turned 19, I guess. They were 19 years old. And let's see some kids down in college and they probably no doubt thought I was absolutely crazy at this end of the war. But then someone turned to me and said, 00:36:00well, the war probably won't be much because it's over, isn't it? It's pretty much over, right? Because we've been drawing down. The big war was over. We're coming home. And why are you going when everyone's coming home? And I said, well, because the war's not over. It's just something else. I guess I'm going. [inaudible]
KURTZ: Okay. So, how did you get to Vietnam?
HESSELBEIN: That's another funny story. I was just traveling to Travis Air ForceBase. My orders said show up there New Year's Day not later than 2 a.m. So, I'm going out to California with many relatives. Many, many relatives over there. And yeah. I had a cousin, very attractive cousin. She drove me out there. But on the way there, a few days before I was supposed to report there I called up a friend of mine who lived in Illinois named George [inaudible]. "George, when are you supposed to get to Travis? Maybe we're on the same plane." He goes, "No, no, we're not going there. We're not going to Vietnam anymore." I said, "[inaudible], where are you getting all of this?" He says, "No, I got my orders changed, I'm going to Fort Carson. Yours have probably changed, too. They'll probably give them to you when you get to Travis Air Force Base." So I was all excited, like, holy cow, I'm not going, but I've got to enjoy my vacation before I go to this other base in the States. And, you know, I'm kind of happy not to 00:37:00go. So I show up to Travis at one in the morning. I go, "Here I am. And oh, by the way, I think my orders have been changed. Will I pick up my new orders here or to wherever I really got to go to?" They go, "Your flight leaves in one hour." STAMP! [laughter] And [inaudible] went and I remember we flew up through Fairbanks-- no, Anchorage, Alaska. Land at Anchorage and we actually got off this contract. Got off the airplane, walked around, I saw they were selling [inaudible]. I thought, Boy, that'd be fun to take [inaudible]. Then we went to a [inaudible]. Fell in love with one of the young flight attendants there. But of course, I'm just another young, skanky kid. And then you cutted down to Saigon and took the bus ride over to Bien Hoa.
KURTZ: What was your reaction when you landed in Saigon and walked off the00:38:00aircraft? Did you have any--
HESSELBEIN: Oh, getting off at Bien Hoa. You know-- [cross talk] it's thetypical thing. A guy comes on board and he's wearing a helmet and [inaudible]. They probably haven't gotten a rocket attack or mortar in six months, but he gets on and he goes, "Please hurry as quickly as you can to the bus. In the event of a mortar attack or a rocket attack, do this and that--" and I go, Holy cow, I'm in the war zone. And I walk out and some of the guys are there. And [inaudible] were just kind of snickering at this guy because he had starched [inaudible]. Looks like he'd never been in the dirt with anything he ever had on his uniform. So, the heat and humidity got me. It was daytime, as I recall, and then off to the replacement center and along then we went, like everybody else. And that was interesting because I'm so impatient. I wanted to get somewhere and you got to put out your preference of where you want to go. So I was in the club 00:39:00there and of course they had some guys who were out processing there as well and they were like, kid, if you go north, you go to the big war. Shitty living, crummy, crummy facilities. Don't go to the 101st because they were still there.
HESSELBEIN: Told everybody, "But if you want to have fun, go to the delta.delta's nice. It's a great war." And the guy had a cav hat on.
HESSELBEIN: I'd never seen a cav hat. Well, this Stetsons are pretty cool."Yeah, you'll love the cavs. The cav's pretty good. What do you fly?" I go, "Cobras." He goes, "Oh, then you'll love it. Don't want be a scout pilot? Cobras are where you want to fly. Cobras are great. Yeah, go to the delta." So, I go, "Look, where should I try to go?" He goes, "Well, Charlie 16th is a great unit down in Can Tho. And try to go with them because Can Tho is very livable. You can actually go downtown. Can Tho's great." So I took his advice and I got my first airplane ride in the Air Force. I got to fly in a C-7 Caribou and I was going down to Can Tho. And when I arrived there they said, Well, actually, you're not staying. And I walked to the O club.
HESSELBEIN: Waiting while they processed my orders. And I walked in this O cluband I said, What a rotten, awful club. Oh, it's so dark and depressing. These little Vietnamese women are like, Who are you? Where are you from? And I thought, boy, they must all be spies. They must be Viet Cong spies. They wanna know all about me so they can report me to the headquarters in Hanoi, exactly 00:40:00who I am-- [inaudible]. Because I'm this 19-year-old important kid. And then the helicopter picked me up, flew me on up to Vinh Long and I got off there and they said, well, while you're out process, why don't you go to the O club and wait out? So I go to the O club and I go, this is really a ratty place! [laughter] Oh my God, this is horrible! Can Tho was actually pretty nice in retrospect, but I ended up being assigned to A Troop 7th/1st Cav. And I'll never forget, I showed up there with my duffel bags, they were way too grossly overweight. Show up and they go, well, we have no place for you to stay. And he goes, hold on, stay here. And all these guys race out to the flight line and some [inaudible], they shot down Apache one-five or whatever the scout call signs were, they shot down a Loach. Now, it may not have even an [inaudible], maybe it had been one of the others. We had three captures there, plus a ground [inaudible].
KURTZ: Explain what a scout-- I know what it is, but--
HESSELBEIN: An air cav unit in the time of Vietnam, there was a battalion or aircav squadron. Squadron would have four of what we'd call companies but in the 00:41:00cavalry, they call them troops. Each of the flying troops were made up of three helicopters when I was there. UH-1s, H models generally, Cobra gunships, [inaudible] and then OH-6A Cayuse helicopters, which were called light observation helicopters. "LOH" turned into "Loach" and Loaches were-- the way our mission would work is that in the delta was the Cobra gunships would fly escort duty on the scouts and the scout helicopters were really very aggressive eyes on the enemy at very low altitude, very low level, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. In the Mekong Delta by that time of the war, they had transformed themselves into little mini gunships where they would carry out normally one observer with one pilot, sometimes two observers. Minigun on one side of the aircraft and the observer would sit on the other side and fix a 00:42:00machine gun. He would sit not in a seat in the back of this OH-6, which was designed to carry four people. Magnum P.I. helicopters, that's how I'd describe, he was 500. He'd actually sit on the floor, often under an armored plate which they'd just literally sit on with a monkey strap around them to make sure they didn't fall out. And they'd literally fly with an M16 machine gun looking at the same side as if it were [inaudible] and the poor guy on the left-hand side, if he was in the helicopter, he was in the left hand seat with either an M16 or an M60 machine gun. And that was called the vomit seat, because with the pilot on the right side and the observer on the right side, the helicopter would make nothing but right hand turns and so in the left seat you were going up and down and up and down. Roll into a turn, roll out of turn. And it was not a question of would you get sick, it was a question of how quickly would you get sick. And 00:43:00I can tell war stories about that some other time. But--
KURTZ: So, what was the purpose of this? Is just to kind of smoke out units onthe ground?
HESSELBEIN: And it was reconnaissance, purest form of reconnaissance. Remember,the enemy we were fighting generally counted on stealth, counted on not being observed until he was prepared to strike. And they were superb at camouflage and excellent. It took scouts flying at very low altitude to literally, first of all, find evidence that they were there. And it was literally the process of-- it was like hunting from a helicopter. First you find the trails and then you find bunkers, and then you start to look around the bunkers for evidence that they've been occupied and bunker to this fortified position dug into the ground, 00:44:00or in the case of the delta, dug in the side of a [inaudible] or filled up with sandbags and covered with dirt and other sorts of foliage. And the enemy is so good at camouflage, it took a while for a scout's eyes to become accustomed to looking through it. I got to fly scouts quite a bit over there as a troop [inaudible] volunteer and [inaudible] M16 in my lap. And when you first went out, you'd be flying with these guys, say, okay, I see a trail, I see a bunker, I see this, I see that. You'd be going, I don't see any of it. All I see is this green going by. And after you did that about four or five times, suddenly your eyes, your mind trained your eyes to be able to look through the camouflage and pick out those little lines and unnatural lines of fortification or upheaval. Or in one case, he kept saying, you got to shoot him there, shoot-- there's a bad guy right there! I go, what? And I had to look hard and all I saw was a boot. And I figured, okay, boot's there, rest of the body is over here. But the scouts took time to learn that. But it was very dangerous because oftentimes the only way they found the North Vietnamese, which is the predominant enemy we faced, was when the North Vietnamese [inaudible]. And when we went out scouting, we didn't just take off and go places. We were always being requested by a 00:45:00commander saying, as an example, down the delta, one of the better units they had down here was a mech infantry brigade, a South Vietnamese mech infantry brigade. I think either based out of Dong Tam or up near Saigon somewhere. But we got to work with them on along the Cambodian border into Cambodia prior to the Easter Offensive. And they would request us and we'd screen ahead of them trying to find concentration of the enemy. And if there was a lot of them in the Mekong Delta and they were trying to hide something, they'd start firing at you immediately to distract you. They're trying to hide hidden or [inaudible].
KURTZ: What kind of weapons were they firing at you?
HESSELBEIN: Well, the delta, predominantly, it was a small arms, small armsbeing an AK-47, occasionally a 12.7, which we call 51 cals. And then on rare occasions here you'd see a 23 millimeter in an aircraft [inaudible]. But if you saw a 23 millimeter, you knew you were up against something very serious, large number of the enemy, because they were just in the Mekong Delta trying to transport anti-aircraft or something like that. It was extremely difficult. But 00:46:0012.7 they could certainly do.
KURTZ: So, you were stationed at, what was it, Vinh--
HESSELBEIN: I was stationed in Vinh Long when I first got there.
HESSELBEIN: And they were just waiting to stand down, stand down, shut down, gohome. Vinh Long was famous because in Tet of '68 they were overrun. And there's a book called Vinh Long. And in the book they talked about-- actually, the town of My Tho or Ben Tre, or the famous saying was we had to destroy the town to save it. But Vinh Long had been overran as well. And the place-- we were always a little worried, I got to perimeter officer there, but it was ironical we were there. A lot of the people worked very, very hard. No one-- even though they knew they were standing down, a lot of those people were going to go home. Matter of fact, they turned to me the first day I got there and said, Well, 00:47:00you're not going to be here six months. And of course I had this giant learning curve to do because I didn't know anything about the mission or tactics. And you just fly along in front of this Cobra trying to figure out what the world was all about with a map, because the poor scout pilot on the ground had no idea where anything was. You literally-- you'd be flying at 1500 feet, 2000 feet above him. He would be low level, sometimes two of them low level. They'd also have a command controller Huey which would fly around about 500 feet above the trees and above the scouts, talking them into the area. And we'd just follow them around. And what's ironic, it was hard to see the helicopter because they were green helicopters. The top of the rotor blades, white or red or orange, and the tail of them would have red on them. But to see them better, they would turn normally to the right and we'd make orbits to the left because of the change in movement would allow us to keep sight of our scouts, because the scouts had an ironic mission. Oftentimes they only found the enemy by taking fire. And 00:48:00oftentimes the scouts would literally, if it was like one or two bad guys, they'd take them out themselves. They'd say, I got two guys in the tree line, we're in on standby, and they'd come in and take care of it themselves. But if they got in serious trouble, the observer or the gunner always had a smoke grenade attached to the forward part of his M60 machine gun. And when they got shot, he'd shove that, grab and shoot and they'd call taking fire. The smoke would eliminate it and usually we didn't get the smoke out, were the other person called taking fire, we roll in and shoot directly at that spot. Now, the co-pilot of your mission was to keep your sight right on the scout and the minute he called taking fire, you could literally shoot right where it was to be, was moving knowing the bullets would hit and he'd be long gone and you would shoot until the pilot turned the aircraft in and you'd literally the [inaudible] would be doing one of these things. And as a pile lined up, you'd say, I'm in 00:49:00and you'd stop shooting. He'd shoot the rockets and then as you start to pull up, you'd open fire again in the area trying to suppress as you pulled off. And that was how we would work. And then we might make one pass, two pass, and the scout would be off somewhere waiting and they could see the explosion in the distance. We'd still be watching the scouts and often times say, We want to go back in. Where the Huey, command control Huey would say, okay, we want you to go to the west. Then they try to sneak him in from another direction, try to get a feel for how many bad guys and where were they at. And that was the delta. Although oftentimes in the delta, we'd go out and even before we got to the area we were supposed to look at, sometimes you'd find things that shocked everyone. We got to do extensive, terribly long days for a while. We escorted convoys all the way up to [inaudible] along the Mekong River. We'd wake up at 3 a.m., fly out at 4 a.m., get out to a place right at the edge of the Mekong River and the Cambodian border. We would refuel and then we'd travel all the way to the river, catch up with these convoys, which really took fire, by the way, as far along as [inaudible]. Those are long days. But when we came back, we would do what they 00:50:00call last lines where we'd have a scout go out with a Cobra in the evening and just do a visual reconnaissance, [inaudible] not further than five miles away. And as we got closer to standing down, which was in March, we began to see fortifications and see [inaudible]. You can see--
KURTZ: So that's March of '72?
HESSELBEIN: Correct. We got to see evidence of North Vietnamese presence. Wewere on high alert prior to that time, prior to the stand down because Nixon went to his famous visit to China. And there was grave concerns at Can Tho that there was going to be this mass attack. The Vietnamese are going to demonstrate-- the North Vietnamese were going to demonstrate that they weren't puppets of China, that they would attack because it became clear that something was in the air, that an offensive was coming. The countryside saw much fortification. What was ironic at the time, though, was to see the denial in the South Vietnamese army in the Mekong Delta.
KURTZ: At the Vinh Long base, were you harassed at night with mortars and stuff?00:51:00
HESSELBEIN: Never. Never fired upon. Never shot at one bit. One night, about asclose as we came, as we were flying back from mission, we were south of Vinh Long, as we were coming off about 20 miles out. They said, We're taking fire. Vinh Long's under fire. And as we got closer, we could see explosions on the perimeter and smoke and they said, disregard, we're not under fire. What happened was an infantry officer had been assigned to clear the greenery from-- clean the wires, the concertina wires. So this unfortunate individual had JP-4 jet fuel spread around and he lit it. Unfortunately, he was in the middle of it when he lit it.
KURTZ: Oh, my.
HESSELBEIN: So he ended up dying and all the explosions were all the old minesthat were cooking off. So the only attack at Vinh Long while I was there, it was self-induced. 00:52:00
KURTZ: So when you were saying they were getting ready to stand down, so inother words, that air base was in the process of being closed or handed over to the South Vietnamese.
HESSELBEIN: Well, the base was handed over to the South Vietnamese, but the unitwas standing on. 7th/1st Cav was standing down and we would sit night alert. We did night [inaudible], we did night alert. We had all the gunships on alert it seemed, waiting for this terrible thing to happen while Nixon was in China. And nothing happened. Although we saw this buildup coming. I'll never forget being at this place way down south, outside of a city called Ca Mau, where we were supplying a province headquarters. And when I say supply, helicopters were sling loading supplies in, and as we were out there, we actually end up having a Huey 00:53:00one day who had two scout pilots in their sky going, Hey, we got all these fighting positions, we've got all this stuff, not too far away from the province headquarters. And they went, no, the area's passed by, we sent patrols out there, South Vietnamese patrols out there, and they found nothing. Well, we've got NVA clothes drying in broad daylight. You know, blue uniforms, drying in the sun. We got weapons lying on the ground a mile away from your headquarters. No, no, no. We had patrols out there. There's nothing out there. You're wrong. And say, well, if we get fired upon, [inaudible], you can't fire back unless you get specific clearance with coordinates from us.
KURTZ: So this wasn't a free fire zone in that area?
HESSELBEIN: Not at all, no. And it was very close to the U Minh Forest, which isa nasty, nasty area. But he, the commander, the adviser, the [inaudible] was going, no, no, no and no, it's not true. I have been assured by my South Vietnamese compatriots and I'm here to advise that area is very passive. There's North Vietnamese army stuff all over the place. I mean, broad daylight. Not here at all. No, no, not true. Well, that was in March. 00:54:00
KURTZ: And was it possible that that Vietnamese colonel might-- that thecontrolled issues there might have been [inaudible] or--
HESSELBEIN: Ah, no--
KURTZ: Or he's stupid?
HESSELBEIN: Well, it's what we saw in Vietnamization so much. It was. You cangive soldiers uniforms and you can give them guns, you can pay them, but you can't make them fight. You can't give them the will to fight. If you don't have some sort of internal sense of purpose, then you're not going to risk your life. You just won't.
KURTZ: When you were talking about-- and I want to get back to the Vietnameseagain, but when you were talking about these scout missions, was the delta basically a free fire zone?
HESSELBEIN: No, no. Much of the delta was not. But by the time I got there in1972, great portions of it were under government control, or as we call it, "pacified". It got to the point where you could fly along and you could look down and say, well, if there's NVA around here, they're right over here, because 00:55:00you could see the area wasn't cultivated very well. It was kind of rough looking from the air. Overgrown-- the areas that were well-groomed, well-manicured, were under the control of the Vietnamese government. And we say under the control of the Vietnamese government, I mean under the control. They had Vietnamese flags, they had Vietnamese soldiers. They were not popular, but they were-- the people who live there were under the control of the South Vietnamese government.
KURTZ: Now, did you ever-- what was the ground rules if you took fire?
HESSELBEIN: Well, matter of fact, I got my little card that I used to carry. Istill have that. The rules were you had to A, be endangered by the fire to take and if they threw a few bolts your way but still not looking like they were going to hit you, you weren't supposed to return fire without the authorization. If you were under fire and it's serious, you can return fire, but only return fire there unless you had clearance on the way. And that was called fire for fire. We had no fires out here, couldn't shoot at all, which we pretty much try to avoid going to. Obvious. We had fire for fire and then we had free fire and 00:56:00free fire was you're going into an area that you knew was controlled by the NA. There was generally very few population in these areas. I mean, it wasn't like you're going into areas that were populated with villages and things so we'd avoid the villages. But the free fire zones are normally, hey, we know they're there. We're just trying to figure out if they're still there. If you went out with free fire, we used to call it recount by fire where you'd see [inaudible], you shoot back. And also, it kind of makes you feel a lot better knowing you need to shoot when you want to shoot.
KURTZ: Now, did you never get shot at from these areas that were undergovernment control?
HESSELBEIN: Oh, gosh, yes. Yeah. With [inaudible], I used to fly Nighthawk withhim. He ended up, you know, [inaudible], when he got to Vietnam, he ended up becoming the commander of the [inaudible] section of our capture of the Charlie 00:57:0016th, and he and I would fly together. I went to Charlie 16 when 7th/1st Cav stood down in March 1972. I went down to beautiful Can Tho.
HESSELBEIN: I thought it was ratty when I first got there, but--.
KURTZ: It's pretty nice.
HESSELBEIN: I've been decivilized enough in Vinh Long and I went to beautifulCan Tho, and it was very civilized. Very modern.
KURTZ: So this was you could do fire for fire in a pacified area if you--
HESSELBEIN: Only if you felt that the fire was so bad, you're going to get shot.Yes. But at night, when you fly a Nighthawk, you get shot at from outposts all the time first. First with M16 machine gun fires. And we don't know-- we don't really think there were necessarily North Vietnamese saying, I will shoot down this American helicopter, they're saying, wonder if I can hit it? You know, they're probably bored soldiers down there going, I wonder if I can hit this helicopter and we just shut off the lights and keep going.
KURTZ: At least in my experience as a ground pounder, this is where you wouldget attacked as you were moving, because this scouting tactic is essentially the same tactic that was used in '66, '67 on the ground. You'd send a unit out and hope that they got shot at and then you'd bring stuff in and stuff like that.
HESSELBEIN: Oh, yeah.
KURTZ: And you'd never get shot at from an area that you knew the bad guys were,it would always be from a friendly village or a-- you know. 00:58:00
HESSELBEIN: Well, it was different from us. It was different. Also, I'd say it'salmost like a daily basis. I'll get to the [inaudible] later. The war in the mountains is very different from the war in the delta. But in the delta, like I said, the North Vietnamese would not shoot at you unless they knew they were uncovered, or they want to shoot at you. In other words, if they were in the middle of a fight going on, they didn't care whether you knew they were there or not. They were just going to shoot at you because they were shooting everything that moved.
KURTZ: Except at night, and then they just maybe randomly shoot at you, is that correct?
HESSELBEIN: Well, normally at night the Nighthawk would go out with [inaudible]search light as basically perimeter defense. Ranger would go out looking for a fight. And he oftentimes went 20, 30 miles away from Can Tho looking for a fight.
KURTZ: What about night medevacs?00:59:00
HESSELBEIN: Night medevacs-- difference in the war. We didn't have any nightmedevacs. We would not do medevacs for the Vietnamese. Night medevacs, when I was here down in the Mekong Delta, only existed in critical times. And during the Easter Offensive, we went out to a place called the [inaudible] factory, which is out near the Cambodian-Vietnamese border right by the Gulf of Thailand. And we went out one night, not to medevac, but to rescue an American advisor, colonel advisor, and by the time we got out there, he didn't want to be rescued. "No, I'm not leaving." And I guess someone else said, they're going to rescue the guy whether he wants it or not. [laughter] And that was that was a heck of a night. It was a long night.
KURTZ: Well, what was a typical day like?
HESSELBEIN: Typical day for a gunship pilot in the cav unit and I want to-- letme just finish up with some of the 1st Cav. Some of the 1st Cav, after Nixon got back, they announced you're standing down. They sit down in March. Despite all the evidence that something big with cooking, we were shrinking down. When I got there, there was about 100-- I want to say 140,000 is the number that sticks in 01:00:00my head as far as numbers of U.S. troops when I first got there in January. They sent home about 60,000 of them right in March, I believe. They just shut down units. The 101st stood down. A lot of aviation resources did. By the end of March, the Mekong Delta, [inaudible] the two U.S. divisions, I recall, I think the 9th Infantry was down there in Dom Tam and the 23rd [inaudible], I can't remember the divisions. But anyways, we were down to two helicopter companies. We had a lift helicopter company at Can Tho and we had a cav troop at Can Tho. And had that been a few months earlier, we would have three-- two or three times the number of aviation resources. But right after Nixon left, the troops went home too. Or many of them did in anticipation of us standing down. The other ones that didn't go home were the South Vietnamese and the North Vietnamese. 01:01:00
HESSELBEIN: So we arrive in Can Tho and what we're doing out of Can Tho in theMekong Delta, and I'm going to separate the Mekong Delta from the Central Highlands because two different cores, two different wars. You need to take a break?
KURTZ: Well, no, what I'm thinking is-- [break in recording].
HESSELBEIN: --very good.
KURTZ: Okay, so we were talking about the units standing down and--
HESSELBEIN: We literally stood down of Vinh Long and what was ironic was we hadto transfer everything to the Vietnamese.
KURTZ: Does everything mean--
HESSELBEIN: The [inaudible].
KURTZ: What about the aircraft?
HESSELBEIN: The aircraft were-- we had to clean these helicopters spotless. I dorecall the annoyance it was to be tearing panels off of their helicopters, as a warrant officer, how dare they make me, a warrant officer, actually clean an 01:02:00aircraft? Just the amount of work it took to get these aircraft satisfactory to fly them up north to a shipping place where they would fly them out. [break in recording] And I'm going to talk about Can Tho because that was more-- I could just talk about there. Although the primary mission of the Air Cav, as we all know, is to screen and temporally hold ground and reconnaissance, we and the gunship [inaudible] roles got many missions flying to cover gunships. Our primary mission, of course, was [inaudible], which I talked about earlier, going out and really rooting out the enemy. Other missions that we got to do, though, if we did get to do armed escort where we would be called out to cover the insertion of troops with helicopters.
KURTZ: Mm-hmm. Well, these are all urban troops at that.
HESSELBEIN: Yes, occasional use of U.S. troops, but generally almost all urbantroops. Then we also got to do our escorts of resupply where we escorted Chinook helicopters. Helicopter gunships. [inaudible] these big cargo helicopters. The 01:03:00[inaudible] ones are still flying today. And then we also got to do a convoy escort on the ground or in the water. And oftentimes troops in contact, where we go out-- and generally that was at night, although sometimes it was during the day where we get called out. And there were several times that were just shocking experiences. In particular when we landed at a firebase being hit all night. And you go out there the very next morning to get a briefing from the ground commander. I'll never forget one where we landed in a place called Firebase Schroeder, which sat on the road that came down from Saigon, that made its way down through My Tho, eventually Vinh Long and down to Can Tho. And Schroeder, we got a call out there all night. Next thing you know, instead of us being down, we went right back to [inaudible]. We landed and the place smelled of blood and burned bodies. And we listened as we were getting the briefing, we got to hear the bang noises where the South Vietnamese were doing the coup de 01:04:00grace of those who were too badly injured [inaudible] gas and napalm and rockets and machine guns and explosives to be saved. And it was kind of funny, they said, well, do a reconnaissance, figure out where these guys went. And the 5th NVA division was just off to the west of Dong Tam. Like, they're over there. Over there a mile. The only thing we can do is say how close they are to your perimeter. But where they are, we had no fly zone, not because we couldn't return fire. It was because the SA-7s were so great that we could not go through that area because if you went down, you're probably on your own.
KURTZ: The SA-7, that's a rocket--
HESSELBEIN: Shoulder fired heat seeking missile that appeared in '72. So we gotto do really a number of missions. The medevacs, though, were never really dedicated in the delta, dedicated U.S. medical forces. If we had someone injured, we did our own medevac or the lift units would come in in a Huey. One time, well, the Easter Offensive started. That abruptly started in the morning of I want to say-- I think they say March 30th, but it's actually in my mind as 01:05:00April 1st. But one night, we, literally, right after dark, all the gunship pilots are told, get up, wake up, you're going. And I think we had six flyable gunships and in our cav troop were eight and four went north to all places, Vinh Long, literally shooting up the facilities that we had just--
KURTZ: Turned over?
HESSELBEIN: Turned over a few weeks prior. But that was okay because by thattime, all those facilities had been stripped of everything: light bulbs, light bulb sockets, wiring in the walls, insulation. There was nothing left there but concrete. Everything under the pillars. We went south to a place that was getting hit. And remember how I told you about that one Chinook escort that we did one day where we couldn't get any fire at all [inaudible]? Well, that's very same colonel, singing in a soprano voice, [high-pitched voice] who's talking 01:06:00like this on the radio about two in the morning, and we said, Where do you want us to shoot? And there were flares dangling from one of those headquarters, provincial headquarters. He goes, hit the hit the bunkers, hit the bunkers. And we said, well, we can't really-- of course, [inaudible] but essentially let them know that if we hit a bunker with a 2.75-inch, 17 pound warhead, it'll collapse the bunker. And he's like, they're in the bunkers, they're on top of the wires, they're everywhere. So we literally expanded as quickly because we kept going back. [high-pitched voice] And when we got out there, his voice was like this and when it started, the North Vietnamese began to retreat back from where they came. [high-pitched voice] And his voice got like this. [lower pitched voice] And his voice got like this. And finally, after our third reload, we went out there and he's saying, [lower voice] put your rockets out about 200 meters to the south side.
HESSELBEIN: And after that, we still did a Chinook escort into that area, but wealways had free fire. You can shoot anything that moves outside the wire. He had 01:07:00gone through an attitude adjustment. And another thing was interesting about that time was that one night, I got to get drunk with an American advisor who was going home. He came to Can Tho and he was grateful because we had pulled him out of the fires. And probably one of my most shocking memories. Went up to this place in-- [inaudible] plant. And we were out all night and they all had us shoot our turrets and finally at light, the enemy would back out, which they tended to do at first light. And they said, hey, we hadn't fired our miniguns. And these two Cobras are reporting on their advisor as a copilot, "oh, he's frustrated." Like I just had to sit in the front and watch the guy in the back have all the fun, shoot rockets, you know. So they said, Well, why don't you expend on this little hilltop? When we looked at the little hilltop and it was quarried on three sides. Well, only few places in the delta was above sea level as quarried and there's this wooded area [inaudible], maybe an acre, if even that. So we go, there's nobody up there. No one would be stupid enough to be up there. This is ridiculous. And so we put a few bursts of the minigun and no one returned fire. Like, "there's no one up there." "Well, just expend on it." So we 01:08:00expended everything and it was fun. And we're like, okay, let's keep reporting, watch all the popcorn. And everyone took a shot and went home and woke up a few hours later and given an SKS. Said "here, this is compliments of the commander out there." We each got some sort of rifle. We got 125 plus kills on that hilltop. And it was North Vietnamese, it was limestone. A limestone quarry. And they couldn't dig in. And they literally had-- that's when I realized the south was going to lose the war because the fire discipline, you know, [inaudible] the hardest thing to do is to keep guys from shooting. Harder to keep them quiet. And these guys just took it. They just took it because obviously some of them said "don't shoot back, try to stay hidden." So they figured if they didn't shoot back, we'd stop shooting. And they didn't realize that they were just a down range thing to expend upon.
KURTZ: How was the morale at this time in Vietnam?
HESSELBEIN: It depends who you're with. Among the crew members?
HESSELBEIN: We were very cocky. We were very confident. We were there for eachother. And that's a key thing that holds true that, you know, every high esprit de corps unit, we were there for each other. When we lost people, most of our 01:09:00time is spent asking ourselves, what did we do wrong? What could we have done better? You know, or if it's not too bad when sometimes someone just got unlucky. But on the non-pilot side of the house, on the non-crew member and I emphasize crew members because [inaudible], the non-crew member side, drug abuse was awful. We had an infantry company assigned to guard the base and the company commander used to beg to let us take his men off patrol. Always refused and he says, my guys are turning in nothing but junkies because they're just occupying bunkers. They want to be infantrymen; they want to do their--
KURTZ: These are Americans?
HESSELBEIN: --do their skills and they weren't allowed to. And he had grave01:10:00troubles with that at Can Tho. At Vinh Long and Can Tho. But morale among the enlisted people wasn't so much that they were losing the war as much as they were just totally bored. Totally bored. Boredom of war. And alcohol and heroin. Heroin became a huge problem. Marijuana was a huge problem. Among the crew members, though, the thing was, we didn't smoke pot. You didn't do drugs, and if you did and they found out about that, you were gone.
KURTZ: What about the people who were getting real short? Did that make any difference?
HESSELBEIN: Oh, sure, [inaudible] I can relate to that, we've all been there once.
HESSELBEIN: You got paranoid, but [inaudible] for my own morale, I acceptedwithin three months that anybody who got killed over there was a total waste of their time. Because I got to work with nothing but the Vietnamese. And that I realized those things that I read about, Fire in the Lake, and the fact that I began to understand that the South Vietnamese-- when this drunken advisor one night told me, he said, "And here's Green Beret," and they made them take off their green berets, by the way, they were no longer allowed to wear their green berets in '72 although they were all special forces. He said, in the province he 01:11:00was in, which is a [inaudible] called Vi Thanh. On the first night of the defensive, all the outposts fell. All the outposts fell. And most of them fell with two casualties: the Vietnamese NCO and the Dai Uy of the lieutenant. They said, "This is how these things go." He said, "Suddenly one night you're in this little [inaudible]," regional port, and they called then [inaudible], regional forces, people forces. You're in there with your families. You're in some dank three-sided outpost. Three arms, you know how they look. And suddenly there's 400 people outside the perimeter. They throw some mortars at you and they start yelling, "We're coming in to get you. We're coming to kill you. And if you give up your lieutenant, your sergeant, we'll let the rest of you live." Meanwhile, the Dai Uy who's probably the Dai Uy lieutenant there because his family had 01:12:00connections in Saigon, got him this position, was calling up the province commander or whoever is next in command, and that commander is saying, well, what's in it for me? Now already his soldiers get 90% of their pay because commanders above take 10% [inaudible]. So now this lieutenant is negotiating money to get artillery support. Things we would never dream of in our army. You're standing there. So finally the locals look at this foreigner from Saigon who's in charge of them and they assassinate him. They open up the gates and the North Vietnamese come in, beat him up a little bit, take all their weapons, and they no longer have their South Vietnamese flag up in the morning. We come back in and resupply and say, Oh, you lucky son of a gun. Maybe if you wounded in the mortar attack-- The commanders all got killed. Oh, you poor lucky guys. You're lucky to be alive. It had become a resupply point for the North Vietnamese army that we provided. Every time they needed supply, they know what to do. And oh, by the way, they got a new Dai Uy from Saigon. And I learned all that. So was my morale down? My morale was down only in the sense that it was a waste. But still, when you're 19-years-old, it's an adventure.
KURTZ: Oh, sure.
HESSELBEIN: You're hoping you're wrong. You know, you're hoping you're wrong.You're hoping, well, I'm not that smart, so maybe I'm wrong, but everything I'm 01:13:00seeing or nothing is convincing me that our allies are worth dying for.
KURTZ: Is there anything more we should talk about the delta before we wind down?
HESSELBEIN: No, except for the delta was very civilized. The delta is civilizedin the sense that guys live downtown. The pilots didn't but some of the enlisted guys had girlfriends that they would shack up downtown with them. There was never any local tax. No [inaudible] tax during '72 in this area. No, no danger of it. We still had a perimeter officer, but none of that stuff. Drugs were rampant among the enlisted and that was probably a reflection of morale, the plentiful drug supply.
KURTZ: What about racial problems?
HESSELBEIN: You know, it's funny because that comes up a lot. But to be honest,I did not see the racial issues at Vinh Long or Can Tho. They may have been there, but they were not transparent. They were not obvious to me.
KURTZ: Okay. Is there anything else we should talk about on this--?01:14:00
HESSELBEIN: I can't think of anything more. I could talk about the competitionbetween the captains. Warrant officers, we were just kind of on our own. But the captains saw a shrinking army, and they were very almost on the edge of being combative, trying to be competitive with each other. We had the contradiction, which we also saw the north of. We still had some people who felt that they were going to win the war personally. They were willing to take risks with other people's lives to do things that a lot of us would look at and go, that's completely unnecessary, or perhaps inappropriate. Like, why are you hanging it out like that? I did meet a pilot. I knew a pilot I was very acquainted to. Feel like I ever met him at a premonition of his death that was accurate, where he tried to get us on the fly for him, and he asked me to fly for him. I didn't have to fly that day. And I asked what he was doing. He was doing a Chinook escort. I turned him down because it's the most boring mission in the world. I mean, you never go any place you can get really shot at much. And he turned to 01:15:00me and said, I can't fly around. If I fly around, I'll die. He said, I'll never get to see my baby. I got a new baby at home, and all that. So, I'll never see her. [inaudible] is like, "what are you doing?" "A Chinook escort." "A Chinook escort?" They actually put a guy in his front seat who's a two tour man. He just got his [inaudible] plaque the night before. And he was a Huey guy. I was on the flight Cobra, wasn't good enough. So I said, well, I'll fly hook covers tomorrow. Let's see what's [inaudible]. [inaudible] --Chinook escort. They got diverted. [inaudible] a helicopter had gotten shot up, flew a few miles, landed in the U Minh Forest, they're going to sling load it back, evacuate the crew already. So by the time they got, the North Vietnamese were there and shot them down the first pass. Killed them both. And their names are side by side on the wall.
KURTZ: Oh, my. Well, that's not a good story, but that's a story to stop on.
HESSELBEIN: Yeah. Yeah, I think so.