Editor’s Note: The following is an article written by Steve Rockett of McDowell County about his experiences as a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. Rockett passed away in January 2016.
I got shot at in my H-13 in I Corps more than anywhere else in Vietnam. We moved into southern I Corps to relieve the Marines because they were expecting a big push on the DMZ and did not have all the choppers like we did.
We had an LZ (landing zone) at Duc Pho and usually were shot at soon after crossing the LZ perimeter. When we first arrived in I Corps, the Vietcong and NVA would stand out on the roads and shoot at us in the open until they learned we shot back. It was really nice of them to stand out in the open for us.
On day we were trying to win the “hearts and minds” of the people and we flew over some Vietnamese working in the rice paddies. I was the low scout and we flew over the people, dropping candy but no one of them ever looked up, they just kept on working. As I flew around the paddies, there were villages on each side of me about 300 meters away. As I turned and the gunner dropped candy, we started receiving automatic weapons fire from the village to my front.
I turned to the right and received fire from another village and kept turning and received fire from the village that was initially to my rear.
I kept turning to the right and started making a gun run on the first village. The people in the paddies still did not look up, but did hit the water in the paddies. I made my gun run and, of course, my M-60s jammed so I beat it out of the area with a few hits on my copter. The 1/9 Cav sent in the Blues (assault platoon), who had small contact, finding a few weapons and killing some VC (Vietcong).
That day I realized we were much hated and I didn’t believe we could do anything to change the situation, but we continued to plod along and do our missions trying to protect each other.
I flew a captain to a Special Forces camp near the Laotian border to do intelligence work. The flight over was about one hour and there were mountains all around us and valleys between.
Dark was approaching and we finally departed toward the coast and the LZ at Duc Pho. While at the camp the captain had traded for an M-1 rifle and he held it fondly as we flew. I didn’t know the M-1 was loaded.
On the way over and back, we were shot at. I looked out the door and, without my knowledge, the captain opened up with his M-1 from 1,500 feet and the cartridge brass was flying about inside the chopper. I almost had a heart attack.
He must have been a great shot to hit someone from 1,500 feet with an M-1.
The next day I was flying the same captain to some outposts and LZs. One of the outposts was on a pinnacle. The captain had spent six months commanding a rifle company and he was still a little nervous.
I was about to complete my approach and had a nose up attitude when the M-60s on my skids began to cook off.
The troopers on the pinnacle dove for cover and the captain freaked out. He thought we were taking fire.
I dove to the right and made sure the arming circuit breakers were out and I flew with my hand down the cyclic not anywhere near the trigger. As I headed toward the beach, the M-60s continued to cook off intermittently.
Each time the 60s fired, the captain would try to bunch himself into a tiny ball. He was probably scared, but had a right to be after being a ground pounder for six months.
I landed on the beach and exited the chopper; staying clear of the M-60s and disconnected the ammo feed belts and cleared the weapons. I can’t remember what maintenance determined as the cause of the cook-off.
Back we went to the outpost and landed. The troopers thought we were being fired on by AK-47s. I was just thankful I was in a nose-up attitude or some of the troopers could have been hit.
Once I flew a doughnut dolly around to see the troopers. As I did, I noticed the Navy and Merchant Marines unloading supplies on the beach. I flew over at 100 feet.
One guy was tattooed from head to toe. He gave me a mean glare with a sour look. He probably had been in the Merchant Marines all his life. He looked like the tattooed harpooner from the movie “Moby Dick.”
As I flew over I applied left pedal. Of course, the H-13 yawed and the dress of the doughnut dolly came up over her head. The face of the guy on the landing craft changed from smirk to a smile and his jaw dropped as he saw the round-eyed woman.
We stayed in I Corps for a couple of months and I was glad to get back to II Corps and the Bong Song Plains. LZs English and Uplift were familiar territory. It was good to be home again.
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