At the beginning of The Personal Experience: Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam, a documentary created by writer-producer Richard Jellerson and producer-cinematographer Jamie Thompson, the film notes that the conflict was frequently referred to as ‘the Helicopter War. Although the sobriquet did not necessarily mark the first time a war had been so closely associated with the technologies supporting it, the role played by Huey slicks and gunships grew in critical ways as the Vietnam War unfolded. Relied on at first primarily as evacuation vehicles, the medevac came of age in Vietnam. Helicopter units soon became hunter-killer teams or lift-and-assault units, crucial supplements to and protectors of the ground force.
The Personal Experience, which debuted in June 2001, is a remarkable film, not only for its exhaustive historical and technological examination of helicopter warfare in Vietnam, but also for its thoughtful, far-reaching look at the conflict’s personal and social contexts. The filmmakers’ methods are deceptively simple: Interviews with veteran helicopter pilots were combined with stock footage, as well as home movies taken by soldiers and a voice-over narration. What raises the film above its modest methods is the quality of those ingredients and the insightful ways in which they are assembled into a narrative arc. The participants are eloquent and, at times, breathtakingly candid. In one instance, Brig. Gen. Ezell Ware, who is an African American from the South, comments that it was almost as fearful to be in Mississippi as in combat in Vietnam. The home movies offer a rare personal view into life as a soldier, from induction into the military to homecoming, from leisure time at the officer’s club to stereo wars in the barracks, to the smoking monkey that became a unit mascot.
That the film is both historically thorough and socially sensitive is no doubt due, at least in part, to the fact that Jellerson was himself a helicopter pilot who, as a W-1, then a W-2 warrant officer, flew two tours in Vietnam. In turn, the film has influenced Jellerson to pursue other Vietnam-related film projects, including a possible Personal Experience series, as well as the development of an archive for the home movies — and other artifacts — taken and saved by Vietnam veterans. Jellerson recently sat down with Hazel-Dawn Dumpert, who interviewed him for Vietnam Magazine in Los Angeles.
Vietnam: Would you begin at the beginning — where you grew up, school, going into the military, etc.?
Jellerson: I grew up in Southern California, went to college at Pasadena City College and Cal State L.A. I was drafted. I went to live in Hawaii, but forgot to tell the draft board that I had left — just slipped my mind [laughs]. I told them after I got my notice, but then they said, Okay, but now you’re on Hawaii’s draft situation, which gave me a year to go shopping to see which service would teach me to fly. The Army was the only one with just two years of college [required] at the time. I had a year of flight school and then was in Vietnam for a year, first tour, flew in combat. I extended for one tour. The second tour, I went back and flew General [Creighton W.] Abrams, the man who was in charge of the whole war. It was an amazing view, the yin and yang of the whole war — right down in there with the troops the first time, and the second time talking to four-star generals and presidents.
VN: What did you do after you got out?
Jellerson: I went to law school, decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer, went into advertising. I’d always wanted to get back to my roots, which was writing. So I wrote a book on marketing, a lot of short stories and a screenplay. Then I did a documentary film on a gentleman named Valentin Berezhkov, who was Joseph Stalin’s wartime interpreter and was actually at the Yalta Conference, at Potsdam. He lived only 20 minutes from me, in Claremont. [As for] Jamie Thompson, who’s my partner in Storyteller Films, he and I did this, but we couldn’t find a market for it. So I was meeting with a film distributor that I knew — we started talking, and he came up with the idea of doing a helicopter story.
VN: Just as you went shopping for a branch of the military that would let you fly, most of the people in your film also commented, I just wanted to learn how to fly. Jellerson: That was interesting. I wrote the base line for this script before we interviewed anybody, thinking that once we got through the interviews, it would change dramatically. It didn’t. We could have called it The Common Experience. It was amazing how many of us had felt exactly the same — we’re not sure about that war, but we do know that we’re probably gonna end up going, and I’ve always wanted to be a pilot [anyway]. It is the best way, far better than learning to fly in civilian life. Of course, there’s the price. In civilian life, you just pay cash; with military, there’s a higher price. But it’s a far better education for a pilot.
VN: How so?
Jellerson: It’s more intense, there’s more depth. Nothing is taken for granted. They actually teach you in military flying that, even though the odds are against an engine failure, you’re to expect one at any time. During flight training, without telling you in advance, they would just turn the engine off. What are you going to do? Oh, you hadn’t counted on this? That’s too bad, because now your engine’s dead. Statistically the engines almost never fail, but it’s that constant If there’s anything to go wrong, it’s gonna happen now; what would you do? I don’t think civilian pilots get that. I knew I’d have to go once I got my notice, but I went to the Air Force and the Marines and the Navy to see if they would teach me to fly. They all required four years of college at that time. The strange thing is, because of the demands of that war, about three or four weeks after I got into the Army, the Marines and Navy dropped their requirements to two years, too, so I could have flown fixed-wing.
VN: Were you disappointed that you were going to learn to fly helicopters?
Jellerson: At the time — but like a lot of things that happen in life, it was far better for me. It’s much more difficult to fly helicopters, so if you learn to fly that first, flying fixed-wing later is very easy.
VN: Tell me about your experience with flight school.
Jellerson: Well, we were trained to be officers and pilots at the same time, so we were simultaneously taking flight training and officer training. But the officers we were designed to be were warrant officers, which is a very specific duty. You’re not in command of anything but a helicopter or a flight; you can’t be in charge of anybody outside your aircraft, so your flight crew is your command. The warrant officers were created because they needed so many pilots over there that it was the best way to fill that need.
VN: Where were you trained?
Jellerson: At that time, basic flight school was at Fort Walters, Texas. Everything is done now at Fort Rucker, Ala. As a matter of fact, Fort Rucker trains helicopter pilots from all corners of the world….I think our Navy has the only helicopter pilots in the military, anywhere, that aren’t trained at Fort Rucker.
VN: Tell me about your Vietnam experience.
Jellerson: I flew in the 116th Assault Helicopter Company at Cu Chi in 1969. Cu Chi, about 20 flying minutes north of Saigon, was in the III Corps. Combined with the IV Corps, these two areas consisted of roughly the southern half of South Vietnam. We were what they call a lift and assault helicopter company. The Hornets — the 116th — flew Bell D and H model Hueys as slicks or troop carriers. We had the slightly smaller B and C model Hueys as gunships. As the flight of four to nine slicks would begin their combat insertion, carrying six or so infantry each, a solo D-model flew in, laying down a layer of smoke against the tree line to hide the landing. This was the Smokie. The four- to nine-ship flight of slicks, plus two to three gunships flying cover and Smokie, worked together every day inserting and extracting troops. We were what they referred to as a bastard outfit. We didn’t have higher-ups, so we would fly every mission that came down the pike. One day we’d be flying for the 1st Cav, ’cause their ships were down, the next day we’d be flying for the Navy, picking up some of their people. We’d fly a lot of single-ship missions. We flew long-range patrols out into the middle of the bush, in the middle of the night. We flew Cambodian mercenaries, 12-year-old kids and 80-year-old men with some of the oldest rifles I’ve ever seen — and sticks! No matter what the mission was, we would fly it. Most units over there flew the same group every day; we were just constantly doing something new. And it was pretty nasty; I don’t remember but maybe two days in a row when we didn’t take fire. We lost a lot of people, a lot of ships. The next time I came back, like I said, I was General Abrams’ pilot. He lived in downtown Saigon, so did I. It was very nice, actually. I met all the heads of state, the vice president. I flew everybody who came into the country except Nixon and Bob Hope.
VN: These sound like two wildly different experiences.
Jellerson: I’ll tell you, I think all the militaries on the planet count on this: Once you get into the situation of being in combat, the politics go away and it becomes personal. The first time you see a friend of yours shot or they start shooting at you, it is no longer a political war. You lose sight of what’s going on and why you’re doing certain things. Like you fly guys into an area, and they would secure that area. We’d go pick ’em up, take ’em back, give it back to the enemy, and go in to get it back three days later, a week later. Those things made no sense. But keep in mind, I had my 20th birthday during my first tour. [At that age] you don’t go into depth that much. But the second tour, while I was flying Abrams — many of the missions I flew were just picking him up at his headquarters and flying him to the roof of the embassy in downtown Saigon.
VN: What do you remember most about being General Abrams’ pilot?
Jellerson: He would go down and see Ambassador [Ellsworth] Bunker to get his orders from the United States. And every time, without fail, he came back up and would strap in, fasten his seat belt, hook up his intercom and tell me where he wanted to go. And his next comment, every time, was, The blankety-blank politicians got my hands tied. Without fail, every time he got in the ship. At that point, I’m a little older, been around, had a chance to go back home, see what’s going on, came back, and I’m privy to this. And I’m thinking: You know what? I was right the first time; they aren’t trying to win this war. Here’s proof. The man in charge of the war is not allowed to fight it. So that bothered me a lot.
VN: What helicopters did you fly?
Jellerson: I was trained on, and then flew in Vietnam, the UH-1 Huey, the workhorse of that war. When you see pictures of Vietnam, normally what you’re looking at is the Huey. They’re in every war movie about that era, and they’re still common today over L.A. It’s the noisy one; it’s the one that really, really hacks into the air and makes that whomp noise. It was an amazing machine. We had 18-, 19-year-old kids that kept them together, working all night on them. It was like a truck; it was easy to fix and could take any amount of punishment. Some of them came back with so many holes, you just wouldn’t believe they’d ever fly again [laughs]. As a matter of fact, some of them didn’t fly again — but they did land, and the crew walked away. Holes everywhere, in the rotor blades, just amazing how much damage they could take. Hueys, the first ones, were a little underpowered, which made you really have to learn how to fly, cause if you were hauling American troops, they would have 40 or 50 pounds on their backs, and they each weighed 180 to 200 pounds — and the temperatures were very hot, very humid — which are two factors that make an aircraft very difficult to fly. So you really had to get some finesse in order to keep those things going; it was quite an education to figure out how to fly them.
VN: Your film really integrates historical and technical material into a social and personal context. In a very steady narrative, too — you went from getting into the military to homecoming. Tell me about writing it.
Jellerson: I think for a writing assignment, this was probably one of the easiest and toughest at the same time. Even the History Channel at one time said, Maybe you’re too close to this. And maybe I was. But [they] did feel that the best way to start it was to write my experience. We interviewed some heroes, a couple of Medal of Honor winners, but basically I always felt that the story was the boy next door who grew up watching Vietnam on television and realizing he’d have to go, wanting to learn how to fly. You saw five or six guys in the film, but we interviewed about 35 or 40. The story was so consistent, it was amazing. The only separation was between the guys who were kids coming in and the elders who were already seasoned Army aviators who broke us in. It was very much a father-son type of relationship. It’s like a guild, where the elder passes down his craft, if you will — not just flying, but flying in combat.
VN: How did you find your subjects?
Jellerson: That was interesting. A friend of mine joined me up, paid my dues, in an organization called the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association. I’m not a joiner, but he said, Don’t worry, this will be important to you someday. And sure enough, when this film opportunity came up, I put an ad in the newsletter and a lot of people contacted me. I also called Fort Rucker, and they were having [an annual reunion of the] W-4s — the most senior warrant officers, many of them retired. I figured that would be the time to go back and talk to the cadre, the older guys who taught us how to fly. That turned out to be really excellent….We went through California and then through Washington state, because the Washington National Guard was doing some exercises up there with the ROTC. We thought since several of the pilots in the Guard were Vietnam vets that would be a way to secure some of their stories.
VN: Can you tell me more about the found footage and the archival footage?
Jellerson: At that time we only had about seven hours of the Super-8 film. But…it was the first and last war where, legally, a soldier could take pictures — and everybody had cameras. We are continuing to collect film [from veterans]; we will archive it and I think there are productions down the road where we might represent it for the vets who send it in. I have a coffee can on my desk with nine rolls of Super-8 footage taken in Vietnam. It has been in that coffee can for the last 10-25 years. The guy [who made the film] just sent it in and said, Yeah, take good care of it. Almost nobody has a Super-8 projector anymore, and the film, of course, doesn’t last that long….So we’re going to try and collect as much of it as we can — also stills, artifacts, souvenirs, anything people are tired of hanging onto.
VN: What did you find among those home movies?
Jellerson: I had one amazing piece of footage where a helicopter pilot is coming in on final to a combat zone. The rule in everybody’s unit was that during final approach, both pilots had their hands on the controls in case one got hit. It’s time for him to put his hands on the controls, so he puts the camera down. The trigger’s stuck. What it’s showing now is the grunts in the back seat, getting ready to jump off the ship — upside down. Anyway, it lands, the camera jiggles a little bit, these guys jump off the ship, upside down, and the helicopter takes off. And, I guess, at 500, 600 or 700 feet, he reaches down and picks up the camera — it’s been on the whole time. We couldn’t use that, but there’s some amazing footage, and some that’s pretty graphic that we couldn’t use at all, even though we didn’t want to shy away from that. But there are some horrible pictures.
VN: It’s not rare for a Vietnam documentary to address political issues. It is rare for a Vietnam documentary to address economic issues. That was a really interesting aspect of the film, the economic motivations behind the war. Can you speak to that a little?
Jellerson: One of the interviews in the film did that really, really well. [He talks] about Lady Bird Johnson owning stock in Bell while her husband’s running a war that’s sending Bell helicopters into action, and they were constantly getting blown up. That was part of what we felt was an unhealthy alliance.
VN: How often do you fly now?
Jellerson: Last year I did a lot of flying because of the film, and that was the first time I’d been in a helicopter in quite a long time. Fixed-wing I flew up until about four or five years ago, and then, when I decided to become a filmmaker, I had no discretionary income to rent airplanes. Now that I’m hanging around with a bunch of guys who never gave up flying, it’s real easy. I still feel so at home in helicopters.
VN: What’s next?
Jellerson: Well, we are currently talking to the National Guard about doing their entire history. We flew with the Guard last year, and Jamie, who is Australian, kept asking, Who are these guys? And I couldn’t tell him. They have a history going back all the way to 1636, they are so thoroughly entwined with the growth of this country. We are also presenting several different broadcast outlets with a series called The Personal Experience, but on other missions — the long-range patrol mission, what the grunts did, what the medics did, what the Red Cross did, all of that. But we would do it in the same way, get past the faade of what a lot of media people go after, to tell a more salient story of what really took place over there.
VN: Do you think that this film is so different because it’s made by someone who lived it?
Jellerson: I think to a degree, but I have to say that it also has a great deal to do with Jamie’s sensibilities. He absolutely refused to do this like everybody else, and he stuck to his guns and made me pay attention. I’ve had a lot of compliments about the film from people who haven’t talked to their families about [their Vietnam experience], and it touched them somehow or allowed them to talk to them. Maybe it’s because it’s 30 years later, but there was a dynamic that took place during the film process — I think guys are starting to finally see that we can talk about it, that it’s okay to talk about it. One of the gentlemen we interviewed said, You know, I don’t even care if you use this, it just felt good to talk about it. Oddly enough, his brother had been a grunt in Vietnam and — this is still startling to me — he said, My brother and I only started talking about this war two years ago — and they were both there at the same time. I had one very touching e-mail from a guy who never even knew his dad. He said he just wanted to thank me for letting him understand what the last few months [of his dad’s life] were probably like. The things that have been happening because of the film, the way people have responded to it and said thank you for telling the story as it really happened — maybe that was because, yeah, I was there, so nobody could snow me on what it was like, and also because of Jamie’s conviction that it had to be done better and different. At one point he said, You know, what we need to do is to get out of the way of this story, let the story tell itself. It’s such a powerful story. We did ask them, What was it like to go in? Why did you go in? What was it like coming back? And what they said was amazing.
This article was written by Hazel-Dawn Dumpert and originally published in the August 2002 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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