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Warrant Officer: September 1967-January 1968, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division; January-September 1968, 101st Aviation Battalion, 101st Airborne Division

My troubled teenage years prompted me to join the Marine Corps in late 1960, at age 17. After my four years in the Marines, I attended school and tried to decide what I wanted to do with my life. The Vietnam War and a call from the Army for helicopter pilots spurred me to re-enter the military to fulfill my long-held dream of becoming a pilot.

Arriving at Fort Wolters, Texas, in November 1967, I found learning to fly helicopters to be the most exciting thing I’d ever done; it was the first time I felt a strong sense of belonging. The training was exceptional, and instructors kept the pressure on us until we shut down the last Huey on the final day of exercises. Vietnam would make us appreciate that.

I expected to fly Hueys in Vietnam, but once I arrived at the 1/4 Cav at Phu Loi, the aeroscout pilots got my full attention. Even cockier than the usual military pilots, they were cool-looking dudes. Moreover, aeroscouts flew OH-13S helicopters—Korean War–era aircraft that I first saw when I was 7.

I did my best to be a good combat pilot and soon developed the bulletproof mentality necessary to function capably in a war zone. My first experience with death in Vietnam was early one morning as we landed in tall elephant grass. I was flying co-pilot, and soldiers ran up and placed a dead soldier in the back of the aircraft. Not knowing what to expect, I forced myself to look back at the soldier’s crumpled form. “He looks so small,” I said. “Everyone does,” the pilot said. “They fall down and they look almost flat, like the earth has already started to reclaim them.”

My transfer to the 101st Airborne Division in Bien Hoa in early January 1968 required that I transition back to the Huey. I flew one of two Hueys sent north to the Marine base at Quang Tri shortly after Tet ’68 to support elements of the 1st Brigade. Marine pilots, grounded for much of the rainy season, left their ground troops without reliable support. We ran supply missions for the Marines, medevaced their wounded and transported troops, though we never received any official recognition for these operations.

One mission that changed my attitude in Vietnam happened south of Phu Bai. A call for a medevac took my crew and me into an area where our troops were in contact with a company-size NVA unit. Swarmed as soon as we landed by soldiers carrying wounded men on stretchers, I began to feel anxious. Two ran up beside my door, waiting for their turn to load a soldier. I looked down at this man—a boy, actually. Pale from shock, he looked at me and smiled. I smiled back, hoping he realized I had come to take him away from this terrible place. I stopped worrying about rounds striking the aircraft and concentrated on what I needed to do.

We lived in our Hueys—sometimes literally—and after a while the engine noise, transmission whine and popping rotor blades all blended into comforting white noise. While flying, my Huey responded to my thoughts almost. Few things in life have given me as much pleasure.

On June 18, during a routine mission north of Cu Chi, we were preparing for takeoff when bullets slammed into the front of the aircraft. Wham, a shot hit my right knee, spinning me to the right. Once we were airborne, Jake, my door gunner, dragged me from my seat onto the floor of the cargo area. By then I had decided that I was not going to die, but when Jake brought out the biggest knife I’d ever seen, it nearly scared the life out of me. Finally, he said he was just going to cut my pant leg off ! In the hospital, corpsmen offered me milk and cookies and then numbed my leg and repaired it.

In August I had just arrived at Camp Eagle when I was told to head out to the A Shau Valley to retrieve the bodies of fellow pilot Captain Gary Higbee and the crew of his gunship—killed three days earlier while supporting ground troops. We managed to load the bodies in a remarkably short time and headed back to Camp Eagle. There were no body bags and the stench was so bad that I had to fly practically sideways to allow fresh air to flow through the aircraft. I had great difficulty reconciling the last image I had of Higbee laughing at some stupid joke and his now swollen body in my helicopter.

On the day I left Vietnam, I showered and then threw my jungle uniforms and my dinged and dirty flight helmet in the garbage. I felt happy to have survived but guilty for leaving a job unfinished. Four hours later the big DC-8, our Freedom Bird, began its takeoff roll. I was leaving Vietnam. I did not yet understand that Vietnam would never leave me.


John Bercaw is the author of A Pink Mist, about his experiences in Vietnam.

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.