Skip to main content

Author's Name: Albert Hampton

Title: "My War from the Cockpit"

This is going to be very difficult to write and perhaps a bit long winded. Some may find it difficult to read. Bottled up for over five decades, I can still only relate brief flashes of remembrances.

I volunteered to join the Army and the Peace Corps. My reporting date for both induction in the Army Warrant Officer Flight Training Program and initial Peace Corps training in Puerto Rico occurred on the same day in May 1966. I choose the Army and the opportunity to fly.

As a pilot, I quickly came to love the poem "High Flight". Each line of that marvelous work echoed my exact feelings toward flying, "slipped the surly bonds of earth and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air”, soaring where "never lark or even eagle flew”, “wheeled, and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence ... and done a thousand things you have not dreamed of”. I loved being in the air, among the clouds, flying. I loved the magic of it, being the master of that "long, delirious burning blue". For me, thrill and glory of flying was the ultimate adventure, and even more so in Vietnam. However, it quickly became a frightening blur, a blur of green jungle, dust clouds, monsoon rains, terror, death, a lot of death. That sense of adventure and the thrill of flight did not last. In Vietnam, you could smell the cordite and blood 1,500 feet up. The stench of death was with us wherever we flew. Every day someone tried to kill us.

People yearn to be part of history, important events, things and places to be remembered, written of in the history books. I believe it is a curse. Flying for the 196th Light Infantry Brigade in Heuys one day and OH-23s the next, I supported the “Magnificent Bastards” at the Battle of Dong Ha, specifically, the 3/21st at Nhi Ha. I am a Kham Duc Special Forces Camp survivor, flying extraction, evacuation missions. I was part of the Battle for Hue, as well as the battles south of Da Nang during the Tet Offensive in ‘68, I flew almost daily in the Que Son and the Heip Duc Valleys. I flew C & C over Dorland at Hill 63. I was over the north ridge of the Ah Shau Valley when the 1st Cav went in. I flew from all the best places - Hawk Hill, Hill 69, Hill 35, FB East, FB West, FB Center, FB Ross, Camp Evans, Chu Lai, Tam Ky, Hoi An, Da Nang, Dong Ha, Hue, and so many more.

Early one morning, just east of the north ridge of the Ah Shaw Valley, my friend and fellow pilot, Ron Redeker caught a blast of 30 caliber fire. His blood sprayed over my face shield. It covered the floor, the instrument panel, and the windshield. I could see his blood, had to stare at his blood the rest of the day. His replacement sat in Ron’s blood the rest of the day. Ron survived the horrible wounds from that hail of fire only to die the following year in a training accident back home in the World at Ft Rucker, Alabama. He was a good friend. To this day, I have not found nor stood over his grave. I need to say good bye.

It was west of FB Center, I took a burst of flack over my rotors, landing in one piece on a hill top. What a hill top! It was covered with bodies from a battle just hours before. The dinks had pulled back downhill to the north and our guys had withdrawn to the south. Now they both started back up towards my ship. We could see them coming. Using the M60 machine guns from the ship, the four of us, my Peter Pilot, the door gunner, the crew chief, and myself set up a perimeter defense facing downhill to the north. It got hairy there for a while. I killed my first human being with a knife, close up, hand to hand. Out of grenades, very scared, and down to our last few rounds, a company of Grunts arrived from the south like the cavalry in an old western
I remember the Air America plane crash at Tam Ky. John Simpers and I hauled the lone survivor to the 2nd Surgical Hospital. The fact that he lived does little to erase the image of the other men I had seen trapped in that plane burning, burning.

I remember sitting on stand-by on a hill top fire base overlooking the Heip Duc Valley, a fire base called simply “West”. I was with Dennis Priscandaro in our Huey on the ready pad, watching the A1's roll in on an NVA position on the far side of the valley. Two soldiers walked by dragging the body of an enemy killed in the wire the night before. The dead man’s head bobbed and bounced like a ball on the end of a string. I looked away just in time to see an A1 suddenly engulfed in 50 caliber tracers. The plane, on its attack run, drove straight in. It did not pull up. It disappeared into the treetops, exploding on impact, nothing left but a rising ball of smoke. The pilot was surely dead, probably dead before the plane struck the ground, a victim of the 50's. Score: one to one. One dead dink in the wire: one dead pilot in the jungle. Just then our radios squawked and off we went into that terrible valley. As I pulled pitch, lifting my ship off the pad, I saw the A1's wingman circling helplessly over his fallen partners crash site, seemingly unable to accept the fact that he would be returning to their base - alone.

I remember at Camp Evans, we took turns flying the weather ship missions. Taking off into the night sky to find out just how high the ceiling was. How high you could safely fly before the clouds thickened and made visual flight impossible? Could we safely launch missions? The night my turn came the weather was not particularly bad, the sky just cloudy and hazy enough to make the flight necessary. We climbed out to 5,000 feet. Up there the war was a 4th of July fireworks show. Off in the distance, bright flares rained down around some firebase, green tracers snaked up here and there announcing the enemy’s dislike of the flare ship. We saw muzzle flashes from the artillery, followed a short time later by even more distant flashes and the echo of rounds landing on some lonely trail crossing, a typical interdiction fire mission. All rather pretty and fun to watch. The next night, a 1st Cav. ship on the same mission was faced with total blackness, no stars, no moon, just thick, rumbling storm clouds above. They went inverted shortly after takeoff, crashed and burned. When morning came, my mission was to recover the bodies, four bodies, four men, all burned, all missing parts. Gruesome, gruesome.

And then to, I remember Cotton, CW2 Cotton. We had been classmates back in-flight school. Killed his last day of flying before stand down for his DROS. A head shot, the only casualty in a routine airlift. Then there was a crew badly shot up but able to almost make it home. They ditched in the South China sea within sight of their heliport. But before anyone could get to them, the sharks attacked. No one survived. And, I remember seeing an F4 pilot punch out over our AO. He escaped his crippled craft only to find himself streaking for the ground with a fouled chute, a streamer from 5,000 feet, almost a mile. No reserve chute opened. I wondered, at the time, if he was screaming. I was.

I was there when a C130 took off from Kham Duc. Loaded with over a hundred people, mostly civilians, it barely cleared the end of the runway when it came under a hideous hail of ground fire. It crashed and exploded right underneath us. I had just witnessed the fiery death of a hundred plus souls, mostly women and children and of course the American crew. Just a short while later, I saw Jackson land his C123 on that same airstrip and take off with yet another load of desperate survivors. He had to face that same awful fire. Somehow, he survived. It was an incredibly brave act. They gave him the Medal of Honor for that trip. There were no medals for the people on that earlier ship. Eight ships were shot down that day.

Forced down by a minor mechanical problem, we spent a night at Tam Ky. Just our luck, the Dinks picked that night to attack the Provincial Capital compound. In the morning our ship was so shot full of holes it could not be made to fly. Waiting for the maintenance ship to hook us out, we walked the perimeter counting and photographing the Dink bodies. Death was becoming mundane! I took a whole roll of film and hardly got to a fraction of the twisted mutilated shapes. Later that day in yet another ship, on a trip from Hawk Hill to Chu Lai, I counted three prisoners and three guards as my passengers. Strangely, when we landed, I counted two prisoners and three guards. Both the remaining prisoners were talking and talking, answering the questions of their captors as fast as the questions could be asked. The missing man evidently became, like the F4 pilot, a streamer. It seemed quite reasonable at the time.

Flying cover early one morning southwest of Hoi An for a road sweep, recon and mine clearing force from the near-by Korean Brigade, I saw a command detonated mine explode taking out the point team of the unit. They called for help and down I went. They put two terribly torn up men in my little OH23, one on each side of me. One had his intestines held in by a couple of huge field dressings. The other was missing limbs. I made it to the Charger aide station in just a few minutes. The Aide station medics pulled the two Koreans out and hustled them into the field hospital. I think they may have both been dead. The awful wounds stopped spurting blood on me just seconds into the flight. When spurting wounds stop, either the body has run out of blood or the heart has stopped or both. Flying along with dead men strapped on either side of you is a moment in life not easily forgotten.

With the bodies gone, I climbed back into the air and headed out to the road force. Coming up over them, I could see a group of Korean troops following a wire across a rice patty in the general direction of a nearby village. I landed. Picked up two more wounded men. Shrapnel wounds but not as bad as the last two. Once again, I headed for the Aide station. This time when I returned, no less than ten minutes later, the village no longer existed. There was nothing to be seen but flames. The Koreans had traced the wire, decided on guilt, and taken their revenge.

If you died in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, 196th Hueys carried your body out. It was not just our duty, but our honor to do so. Try as I might, I can’t forget those body bags ... particularly the ones that moved ... containing more crawling maggots than body ... body bags that would not close over the misshapen, grotesquely, twisted forms frozen by rigor mortise ... the smell (weren't body bags supposed to keep the smell in?) ... body bags almost daily! Burned bodies ... bloated bodies ... bodies in pieces ... bodies .... bodies ... and more bodies.

Deep in the western edge of the Que Son Valley, my camera was shot out of my hands. Even further west in the Heip Duc Valley, on a mission to evacuate civilians, I took off with over a dozen women, children and old men on board. We began taking fire only a few hundred feet in the air, a blistering barrage of automatic weapons fire. Green tracers screamed up at us. I knew instantly death was visiting my ship. I remember how calmly I accepted the fact that we were all about to die. Miraculously, with holes all over the ship, only one person was hit. A pregnant Vietnamese woman was struck in the lower back, cut in half by those rounds. Her innards and the fetus were splattered all over the back of my head and the windshield. I still vividly remember the gore running down the back of my neck and the little fingers out there in front of me stuck to the Plexiglas.

Back in the Qua Son Valley, not far from Fire Base Baldy, the dinks attacked a village in the pre-dawn hours. They snuck in, nabbed the headman, gagged him, staked him out on his back in the pig pen and slit his abdomen open letting his guts fall out. The pigs fed on him while he was still alive. Then, as the sun came up and the village children hurried into the little school (for their free morning meal - provided by American aide), the dinks tossed in a satchel charge. The school was destroyed. I saw the headman's body still laying in the pig pen, as we landed in the clearing next to the ruins of the school. My mission was to fly the mutilated bodies of the surviving children to our medical aid station. Ashen faced local militiamen were carrying out the dead and wounded. They loaded the wounded aboard our ship and laid the dead out to one side. I stared out at the growing pile of children's bodies or parts of children's bodies, little legs, a lone head with wide unblinking eyes, a torso, an arm. I made three trips in there that day. The line of little bodies was longer each trip!

We maintained what little semblance of sanity we could muster by facing death with an ever-present humor, black as coal tar but humor non-the-less. To this day, I find myself using dark humor to maintain my mental health. Some people mistake it for sarcasms. And, some find it simply depraved and sick. But, there is no doubt, I am ever so comfortable hiding behind macabre jokes and pranks, a trait wholly attributable to my combat experiences.

While I cry over the sound of taps, I smile when I see a natural death. I remember the initial guilt I felt when standing over my mother during her final moment of life. I realizing I was smiling, smiling while watching my mother die! It was so peaceful, so right, so clean, so clearly natural. It was, in fact, the first natural death I had ever witnessed. For days I was secretly euphoric over my new-found knowledge - not all death was ugly! Death could and should have a quiet, righteous dignity. I suppose I understand the grief and mourning others go through when loved ones’ pass, but I have a very hard time at funerals keeping myself from cracking jokes, telling great fun stores of the deceased. I relish painless, natural death particularly at the end of a long and fruitful life. It is, to me, a wonderful thing to die old, surround by family and comforted by a life of achievement. In Vietnam, death was always of the young, far from family and loved ones, never natural, always violent, brutal, painful, and ugly in the extreme. Youths who will not be remembered, who made no mark on the world, who left no long list of achievements died hideous, violent, unappreciated, inglorious, and above all lonely deaths.

When I came home from that war, like so many others, I was greeted at the both Sea-Tac International and O'Hare Airports with spit and curses. Finding not appreciation for our year in hell but rather something close to hate. I was a Pharisee, an outcaste, an immoral, demented follower of evil. I was scum, not fit for acceptance back into society. No bands, no parades, no cheers, no thank you.

Fortunately, when I arrived in St. Louis, in the middle of the night, I was greeted at the arrival gate by a swarm of relatives and an overwhelming sense of love. It was a long time ago. It was a painful time. But, it is not a forgotten time.

Despite the warmth of family at my final stop, I still bitterly remember my trip home from war. Worse, I remember all those days in Vietnam, all those bodies, all those men, all those friends, all those children, all the blood, all the gore, all the screams, all the terror, the raw fear. It always surprises me when I sleep at night. I know some of us are tortured by nightmares unable to escape the horror that was our youth. Almost to a man, those of us still living feel somehow guilty, ashamed to have cheated the grim reaper, to be home and happy when so many died. We constantly wonder - why did we survive?

It is, of course, my excuse, my justification for any deficiency or peculiarity of character I might exhibit. In my memories of war and death lay the roots of all my sometimes erratic behaviors, my dark humor, my disregard for all things trivial, my disrespect for most things petty, my disdain of opulence, my revulsion at the thought of a meaninglessness self-centered life.

On Christmas Day 1967, I spent ten hours flying a series of Chaplains from one isolated Grunt unit to another. From one hole in the jungle to another and from one muddy rice paddy to another. It was without question a once in a lifetime experience, seeing the glee and happiness on the faces of those young troops as they took an hour off from "search and destroy" to assemble for a Christmas service. Today, I seldom attend church. I do however take comfort in the fact that once in a far-off land in the company of death I, flying “high in the sunlit silence” ... "put out my hand and touched the face of God".