Sitrep on the medical thing.
Things seem to be improving almost daily. At the last visit to the ophthalmologist, he was quite pleased with my progress (“you’re 50% better than you were at the last visit”). This news had me skipping out the door a few minutes later. So….it seems that my little vacation from work may be winding down in a couple of months. I can’t say that I haven’t actually enjoyed the time off, because I have. After traveling for a living since the “disco days”, the gift of spending every day around loved ones, sleeping in one’s own bed each night, and just generally developing a “circadian rhythm”, is a wonderful thing. Since I missed my last “CQ” (Continuing Qualification) simulator checkride in December, I’ll have to make a low-pass through that “house of pain” before I can fly a line trip again, but that’s just part of the bargin I’ve made with the airline. They abuse me in the simulator, and I get the keys to the big jet….fair enough.
This next entry was born of another suggestion from a dear friend. Dale O. (or “Olieman” as we know him in our little group) came up with the idea several years ago, and I ran with it. I penned it almost a decade ago, and even though it took some collaboration with my dear brother; in my opinion, I think we made it work. Although my father saw the skies over Vietnam in the early days of the American involvement, they were no less deadly and surreal. He shared scant few stories of that year in his life…here are just a few…
Prologue: Recently, at a Memorial Day picnic, a good friend commented that I might think about doing a “Logbook” about my father’s flying experiences in Vietnam (thanks again Olieman). It was an intriguing idea to be sure, but one that wasn’t easily accomplished. I collaborated with my brother in an attempt to make sure the facts concerning the incidents mentioned were correct. Using my father’s U.S. Army logbooks, assorted other documents, and our collective memories, we verified that they were as accurate as we could piece together.
The rest is my bit of “literary license”. I deeply felt that only three people would ever be qualified to write this. One is forever gone, and I just beat the other to the keyboard. I offer to you…
As the countryside rushed past the truck window, our haste blurred everything into a ménage of colors. While I listened to my son’s tales of recent baseball heroics, I was also hearing another young man speak; a young man from thirty years before. Like my own dear son, this lad was also barely in the first years of his second decade, and he too was blessed with all the innocence, curiosity, and general “clueless” outlook that one must have at his age. He too dreamed of sporting triumphs, epic battles won, and faraway lands conquered….but at that particular moment in time, this young man was just like every other kid listening to his father ramble on, and he was beginning to get very bored.
I smiled as I was taken back to THAT drive made, and THAT conversation between father and son. The differences in the journeys lay with the fact that I was the one with the “clueless” outlook, and my dear father was the one behind the wheel. The year was 1967, we were living in the ancient Bavarian city of Munich, and were on a quest north to an automobile factory in the town of Regensburg. He was rebuilding a very rare model of sports car, and was in search for some difficult to obtain parts. The unbelievable part of the story was that my brother and I were invited to accompany him on this hour and a half drive through the German countryside. Normally, he would make the trip solo, but I was to learn later of his ulterior motive behind our invitation. We were both nearing our teenage years, and he had made the decision to inaugurate us into manhood with “the talk” on this very day, on this very drive. As he stammered on about such alien things (I wish now that I would’ve listened better…lol), my mind began to wander as all young minds do. I was finding out that at the tender young age of eleven, I could care less about girls, or women, or whatever else this stupid lecture was about.
(Chief Warrant Officer B.E. Ball)
My father was about the best damn father a little boy could draw. He was all the things I needed him to be, and this allowed my stock to be pretty high in the little boy pecking order of things. He was tall, handsome, an Army Warrant Officer of the finest order, but most of all, he was a helicopter pilot, a COMBAT decorated helicopter pilot. When he would enter my young world in his olive drab flight suit (his combat boots loudly announcing his arrival), with those bigger than life aviator’s wings on the left breast, and his ready-made smile for me and my siblings; he was nothing short of a hero in the first degree.
On the long ago journey in question, I had stopped my serial daydreaming long enough to see that we had pulled over at a rest stop to eat lunch on the homeward bound leg. He was unpacking the PB & J sandwiches he made for us at 0400 that morning (why the heck did every trip we take, just HAVE to start before dawn?), and was unscrewing the cap on his coffee thermos. He was adamant about the lesson, and as “the talk” continued, I grew more and more restless. I wasn’t hearing a word he was saying, or at least trying not to, and was convinced that this madness had gone on long enough…it was time to act.
I didn’t know much, but I knew pilots. I knew the best way to change the subject with a pilot was to switch the conversation to flying machines, so I invaded the conversation with this simple question, “Say Dad, what did you fly over in Vietnam again?” Slowly his hands stopped working the cup on the metal thermos, his face lost its usual animation, and his eyes unfocused seeing something far away, something that only he could discern. The tactic worked, but with unintended consequences. With that one “innocent” question, I transported him back to his own private hell.
(The Piasecki H-21 Shawnee.)
“Shut up Ben! Shut the hell up!”
“But Mr. Ball, did you see that? Did you see it? Tango 1 went down…..he crashed!”
Of course I had seen it! I was looking right at him when it happened! Jesus Christ, how did they expect us to be doing this?
“I saw it damn it, I saw it….”
This was turning into another bad day for the 81st Transportation Company. We had deployed out of Pleiku with a four ship, landed in Ban Me Thuot to pick up some ARVN Rangers, and were now taking their asses up country for God only knows what. This piece of crap H-21 “Shawnee” just was not meant to be flying this high in the mountains, and especially when it’s this hot. But the ARMY said a few months ago at Schofield Barracks, get yourselves and your birds over there, so here we are.
(Unit patch for the 81st T.C.)
Dick was leading us on the leg up north, and had elected to fly at 500’ AGL to stay under the overcast. The G2 guy back at base had briefed us that any and all “triple A” was to be a non-item, so we could pretty much pick our altitude and routing. We would be echelon left and I was flying second in the formation, right next to Dick, my call sign: “Tango 2”. And now this…
How can this possibly be happening? I was looking right at him, watching him shoot me the finger, and then bam! His head just exploded! All I saw were several basketball sized orange balls flying up from the jungle, then a cloud of pink where his head used to be. It must’ve been large caliber, 37 mm, for after the first round hit Dick, the next several just shredded the cockpit and they nosed straight in. There was no way that Dick, his co-pilot (some FNG…don’t even remember his name), or anyone else could’ve survived that.
“Ben, you and Jackson, find that gun! Bob, mark the crash site on the map, get your ass on the “guard” frequency and tell them what happened!”
I gotta keep my shit together here, I’m leading this mess now, so start flying like you’ve been trained….
“Tango Flight, Tango 2, I’m up lead, let’s make a hard left and Di Di our asses outta here…now!”
Christ, I can’t think about this right now, fly this thing! What’s Vne speed again? 128 kts…that’s right…get the nose down, and get to that speed…. But Dick and I had gotten our wings together back at Wolters in ‘57……and just like that he was dead! How would they tell Maryland? And if it happened to me, how would they tell Shirley and the kids? I’m truly beginning to hate this God damned place…
We had been in country for about three months now…but it seemed like three years. The duty piloting these “flying bananas” around Oahu and the Hawaiian islands was pretty damned cushy, but that came to a screeching halt last October. “Where the hell is Pleiku, and where the hell is South Vietnam?” That’s all we could think about when the orders came down. President Kennedy had committed more “advisors” to the Republic of South Vietnam, and we in the 81st were tasked with getting our machines over here, setting up shop, and doing just what we had been training to do….transport stuff. People, cargo, we didn’t give a damn. If it needed hauling…we hauled it.
I was feeling about a million years old, and even farther from home than I ever thought possible. Shirley had taken the kids back to Washington to live with her mother, and I was having a really hard time remembering all the good things in life; especially after seeing the ugliness I’d seen here. The days were beginning to run together, and the death, the pain and the suffering was starting to be like something “normal”…like breathing. I knew that to get through this year, the insanity and pain would somehow have to bury itself; but that might not happen until years from now or it might happen next week….all I know is, it wouldn’t happen soon enough. The mission two weeks ago was the worst I’d seen, until today that is.
It was another Ban Me Thuot run, just like this mess today. After we had picked up the ARVN troops (with a few of our “advisors” mixed in), we launched and headed toward the central highlands. The triple-A threat was again supposed to be non-factor, but again, that proved to be a bunch of B.S. from the briefing weenie. I do remember that it was hotter than a summer day in Dallas, and that we had to do some pretty serious flying just to get these crates into the air. If not for the fact that we were indeed THE BEST damned helicopter pilots in the world, and the ability to do a rolling take-off in this crappy machine (and get our ass into translational lift ASAP), we would’ve had to kick about half the troops off to lighten the load. That single Wright Cyclone was straining to get those blades turning and our butts into the air. But I will say that when we did get up and going, our three “4 ships” were a pretty damned impressive site. “Look out Charlie, here we come!”
How they knew we were coming is beyond me, but they did. To go to all the trouble they did to shoot us up, they HAD to know we were coming. I can’t even remember the name of that ugly little village, but I do remember it was tucked damned far into the hills, and that “one way in, and one way out” operation gave me the creeps from the moment they mentioned it in briefing. All I remember is they let us come in, drop off the troops, and then the shit hit the fan. They opened up on us like they were hosing us down at the car wash. I remember Ben yelling and saying something about kids, and I was wondering “why the hell isn’t he shooting back?” I took a quick look out the right side and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! They had lined the women and children up to stand in front of the gun emplacements! Shit! Now what do we do?
Ben was yelling at me from his position at the .30 caliber we had in the right forward door.
“Mr. Ball, what do we do? Do I shoot? Do I shoot?”
They were giving us hell, and I could see that the ships in front of me were taking some hits…One started wobbling, it rolled to the left and hit the ground hard. It looked like an explosion at the toothpick factory…pieces went everywhere. But still no one was returning fire. Those damn women and kids, and damn the bastards for using them for cover.
It all happened at that moment, and why that moment in time, I don’t know. I guess you could say that I just snapped. The confused yelling over the radio, Ben screaming about firing back, the noise of the guns, the ship going down in front of us, our helicopter bucking from the hits….I don’t know why I said it, but I said it…and it will haunt me for the rest of my days.
“What did you say, Mr. Ball? Say again, Mr. Ball! I can’t hear you!”
“Fire, Ben, FIRE DAMN IT!”
The rattling death from his 30 caliber machine gun was their epitaph, and I had written it….I fought with the controls of the helicopter and felt the tears as I thought about my own kids.
(My father at the controls of his H-21 somewhere over Vietnam. I knew that smile, but I can also see the tension in his eyes.)
That was two weeks ago; but this was now. O.K Bill, get your ass back in the game.
“Tango Flight, Tango 2, the mission is still a go….repeat, still a go!”
Dick was down, but I couldn’t think of that now, we still had a mission to fly, and by-God we were going to fly it.
“Tango Flight, Tango 2, form on me”.
I heard the replies on the tactical freq, but was thinking about a million miles ahead of the program. Bob had gotten a reply on the “guard” freq., and someone was inbound to try and find Dick’s ship, so that box was checked. We still had to get our asses to the LZ, drop these yokels off, and get our butts back home in one piece.
Home. What a name for that stink hole where we park these things. “This ain’t Kansas To-To” was the first thing out of my mouth when we arrived, and boy was that the truth. All the comforts of home, right? I guess if you live in a run-down “double-wide” tent, with a bunch of other homesick guys, in a place where its 100 degrees in the shade, the snakes bite you and after 3 steps you fall dead, and lots of little people on the other side of the wire want to kill you…then, yeah, I guess it’s like home.
And “Shaky Jake”, I still don’t believe that one. He gave the best damn haircut on the entire base. And the shave he could give you with that straight razor was better than any of us could do ourselves! We all loved him. He was a local guy, middle aged, lots of jokes and laughing and scratching with him while we were getting “fixed up” as he called it. Then came that stormy night the VC mortared us for over an hour, breeched the wire and blew up a couple of the helicopters. In the morning we all went around to see what had happened, and there he was lying face down in a huge mud puddle. “Shaky Jake” in his black pajamas deader than a mackerel! We all got wide-eyed, a bit dizzy, looked at each other and grabbed our throats. How many times had we all had that blade next to our Adams apples? Shit, this was a crazy war.
O.K., there’s the LZ. Doesn’t look hot; let’s get these things in and out fast.
“Tango Flight, Tango 2….LZ at twelve o’clock, three klicks. Looks cold, but keep your eyes open.”
“Bob, keep clearing the left side and follow me through on the controls! Ben you and Jackson keep your eyes open, and shoot anything that moves…you hear me?”
O.K. calm down there Bill, let’s do it just like we did in training back at Rucker. Watch the descent rate, speed bleeding off good, and keep the rotor rpm in the green. Surface winds from the right, a little more right pedal…there. Seems to be no activity in the LZ, but what the hell does that mean? Little bit of flare…OK…we’re down! Boys get your asses off this thing; I want my butt back in the air lickity-split! What? “3” is taking hits from the rice paddy on the right…shit!
“Ben, do you see the gun? Ben!”
It was then that I began to feel the hits, and it was like we were in a metal trash can and some crazy bastard was banging on it with a baseball bat! We took some rounds into the cockpit, but most of them hit behind us, and Ben wasn’t answering the interphone. I tried Jackson at the other door, but he must’ve been busy taking care of Ben. No guns working for us, and we’re getting our ass kicked…..this was not looking good.
Instinct…to be more precise, the survival instinct is an amazing reflex, for it commands you to do things without cognitive thought. I was in a daze when I looked back, saw the Rangers were gone, one of my door gunners sprawled on the floor and the other bent over him. I instinctively brought us to a hover…and that’s when I saw him.
He was still shooting at us, but he was running down the dike toward a village about a half a klick away. I don’t know what I had planned to do, or if I even had a plan, but I pedal turned toward him, lowered the nose, and slowly began to pick up speed. Bob was yelling something to me, but when I looked over at his wide-eyed face, I could see his mouth moving, but could hear nothing. I must’ve been thinking that we would get a door gun going and we’d shoot this VC a-hole, but any calls to the back were going unanswered. I saw my hands and feet move as if they were not my own, and they dutifully kept the machine steering toward him.
It is said that when a man fights a war, he’s not committing murder; he’s simply killing to stay alive. I feel that’s a statement that only our Maker can (or should) judge. I do know this; I know that I will spend my eternity seeing his eyes as he frantically ran looking over his shoulder. By now he had dropped his weapon, and was just running. Running for his very life.
I could barely feel the thumps as the forward rotor disc began to strike him…..
“Dad…Dad! Did you hear me? Are you OK dad?”
“Yeah son… I heard you…..”
We finished our trip that winter day in Germany, and he said nothing of the incidents described above.
The crossing of the mysterious barrier into “manhood” for my brother (John) and I, came neither on that journey, nor any others we took with him in an automobile. For myself it came as the result of a life-long journey with him as my father, my friend, and my trusted advisor. He was the driving force behind my life in aviation, and he continues to be the yardstick by which I measure myself daily.
Epilog: My father returned from South Vietnam in the spring of ’63. He had several Air Medals (he said they were for picking guys up that had been shot down…he said they asked for volunteers, and he simply raised his hand…nothing more, nothing less…my guess is that there is INDEED more to those incidents), but he had taken no physical damage. He retired from military aviation in the late 60’s when he received orders to go to CH-47 Chinook School, with the addendum that he would be returning to Vietnam upon completion. He had served as a combat medic in the Korean War, and as a combat aviator in the Vietnam War. He decided his days in the Army were done, for it seems that two lifetimes of killing and suffering for this gentle man of peace was more than enough for him.
He didn’t much talk of his time spent in either of those two horrors, but when he did, the above incidents from Vietnam were about all he shared. He only told my brother and I when we were older, I’m guessing thinking that we were mature enough to handle it. He (thankfully) kept it from my sisters, and as far as I know, my dear Mother.
Shortly before his death in 1993, I shared with him the book “Chickenhawk” by Robert Mason. It’s renowned as the Holy Grail of books pertaining to being an Army helicopter pilot in general, and in particular about flying combat in Vietnam. When he had finished with the read, I asked for his opinion. He offered that he loved the parts about the early days of pilot training at Ft. Wolters, Texas for he had gone through his initial flight training there, and after retirement, had worked at the very same facility as a civilian helicopter instructor contracted to the Army. Then he paused and said he didn’t like the parts about Vietnam because they “brought back too many bad memories”.
Although, like many veterans, he wrestled with insomnia most of his adult life… I noticed that shortly after reading the book, he could no longer sleep through the night; any night. It breaks my heart to think that maybe when he closed his eyes wishing for sleep, it was not to be, for he found himself looking into the terrified eyes of someone else.
“My dearest father,
I sincerely apologize for opening up those long buried wounds. I know you put those toughts and feelings away wishing they would never return. I’m so sorry for giving you back that pain…you know I never meant to do that. I pray that your flying now is above peaceful lands, with warm days, and gentle breezes. I miss you.
You’re loving son,