My War - Helicopter Pilot John Dean | HistoryNet

My War – Helicopter Pilot John Dean

By John Dean, oral history
7/22/2010 • Vietnam First Person, Vietnam War

"I moved to the side with the half-inch size branches, then started to descend and just cut our way down through the trees." (Photo: Jennifer Berry)
"I moved to the side with the half-inch size branches, then started to descend and just cut our way down through the trees." (Photo: Jennifer Berry)
John Dean
Warrant Officer 1
Aircraft Commander, U.S. Army
June 1967-June 1968

I HAD THREE WRESTLING scholarship offers but I didn’t want to go to school anymore, so after high school I went out and got a job. A low draft number, however, encouraged me to enlist. I wanted to be in Special Forces or, at a minimum, be a paratrooper. I did well on the tests, and the recruiter asked me if I wanted to fly. “Oh yeah, I’d like to fly,” I said. Except for climbing a tree, I’d never been in the air in my life. I took more tests and did well, and asked about going to Officer Candidate School. The recruiter said I could go to OCS but that it wouldn’t guarantee I’d go to flight school. He said if I went to Warrant Officer Candidate School, however, I’d fly for sure. After basic, I was off to WOCS; by the end of June 1967, I was off to Vietnam.

When you first get there, you’re loaded onto a bus that has wire windows, and you ride through these slums and you’re thinking, “I’m glad I’m here to help these people.” But after you’ve seen friends wounded or killed, you become hard. You’re not there for the Vietnamese, you’re there for your buddies.

One day, I was No. 1 or 2 in the 2nd Platoon, and we had just landed in staggered trail. There wasn’t any firefight going on; it was a cold LZ. Up front there were kids around, but they were staying away because they knew they weren’t supposed to get close. Then this one kid ran out toward the helicopter in the 1st Platoon, which was about five ahead of us, tossed a grenade and ran. As it exploded, a gunner in another ship shot the kid. The grenade killed the crew chief and gunner, and wounded both pilots. After you see that, what do you say?

As an aircraft commander flying slicks with the 121st Assault Helicopter Company, I got assigned to support different units. In late ’67, what turned out to be my most memorable day in Vietnam started off pretty good. We were assigned to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, bivouacked north of the Dong Nai River about 20 or 30 klicks from us at Long Binh. We started off resupplying guys engaged in a firefight who were in a 500-pound bomb crater. We couldn’t get down in it because of the trees, so we dropped ammo to them, then headed back. It was a normal day.

As we were eating a hot lunch (a rarity for us), a guy ran in. “We need you to medevac, do you mind?” The medevac they had called refused to go in without gunship support. “Hell no, we don’t mind,” I said. It didn’t make any difference to us, we were going in.

Two armored personnel carriers were blown up by Claymores and there was a firefight going on. Everybody in the first APC were dead. They loaded one guy from the other one after we landed. The poor guy was pulverized from the waist down. The crew asked, “Should we give him some morphine?” We were trained not to give morphine if a guy has a chest wound. “Does he have a chest wound?” I asked. The crew yelled, “Oh yeah, he’s got wounds all over him.” So I said, “No, don’t give him any morphine.” He was hurt so bad he was trying to crawl out of the helicopter as we were flying. I think he died just after we got to Long Binh hospital. Well, that was stupid as shit. I’ve always regretted not giving the guy the morphine.

John Dean atop Nui Ba Den, the Black Virgin Mountain, in late 1967. (Courtesy of John Dean)
John Dean atop Nui Ba Den, the Black Virgin Mountain, in late 1967. (Courtesy of John Dean)
Then we got called back to the crater where we’d been earlier. These guys were hurting and in a heavy firefight. Of the five guys left, three were wounded. We had to get to the ground, but our blades wouldn’t fit inside the encircling tree branches. I told the crew: “Look, I don’t think we’re going to get back out. If anybody says no, we won’t do it.” Everybody was mum. I could have said we just can’t go in, but I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. We were all thinking the same way, you got somebody hurt, wouldn’t you want them to do the same for you? Hovering, we were starting to take rounds. I asked my crew chief, “How big are the branches on your side?” He said, about an inch. I asked my gunner, “How big on your side?” He said about a half-inch. The tail rotor was clear, so I moved over to the side with the half-inch size branches as much as I could, then I started to descend and just cut our way down through the trees.

There was shit flying everywhere, but we got down to the crater and got everybody on board. Tracers were coming from everywhere, and we were taking a lot of hits. It was a tough climb with five on board because we had to shoot straight up about 45 feet to clear the trees.

We took the wounded to the hospital and dropped the others at their base. Then we went back to my helicopter company to turn in our ship for a new one, because the blades were screwed up from cutting down the trees. Our maintenance major gave me all kinds of hell for tearing up “his” helicopter. He was pissed because it was full of holes, too. I gave him the bird and walked out to get another ship.

We went back, and for the rest of the day we hauled out wounded and moved guys from one place to another as they were getting overrun at different positions. We were the only ship out there.

By nightfall, we’d made about 15 trips to take out about 36 wounded. I think there was a pretty good chance all but the first guy lived. Hence, the 199th’s general wrote us up for the Distinguished Flying Cross.

3 Responses to My War – Helicopter Pilot John Dean

  1. Bill Pratt says:

    What an intense account! Certainly not something easy to forget.

  2. Terry W. Rigby says:

    I served with the 326th Med in Vietnam from February 1967-January 1968. I served with a forward area surgical team. I get tears in my eyes when I think of the miracles those Med pilots performed. I remember hearing about one of the pilots taking his ship under the canopy to retrieve wounded I wonder if it was Dean. Our surgical team worked out of tents and moved so often I cannot remember how many times. I joined the unit in Koung Doung ? February 1967.

  3. Clifford Cox says:

    John, you turned out to be a hell of a pilot but I remember that you would fall asleep taking a physics exam at Stuart and still pass the class.

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