The Ones Who Didn’t Return

I have been doing more reading these last few years, and a book recommended by a fellow Lexican is almost finished. Chickenhawk, by Robert Mason, tells of the author’s journey from Army Helicopter training at Ft Wolters, TX to some of the biggest battles, such as Ia Drang, of the Vietnam War. All from the prospective of an Army UH-1 “Huey” pilot. His story begins with the start of the massive build up, in 1965.

He wrote about everything from the difficulty in training at Wolters, to the stupid stuff like not having any flak jackets – causing the deaths of friends – for months while a neighboring unit 100 miles away had more than they knew what to do with.

And no, the book title is not about what you may think it is.

I guess for me the most powerful parts of the book were his taking you with him into a hot LZ (Landing Zone). When the Grunts on the ground, desperate for help, assure you that the LZ is clear, only to find yourself upon arrival racked by machine gun fire.

Or to take some ARVNs into battle, and at the LZ, have some point their weapons at you rather than leave the ship.

Or coming in to take the dead and wounded and having loose limbs and a head put onto the floor.

Or with his squadron mates, landing their ships on a sand bar of a river to have some Vietnamese scrub and wash the dried blood and flesh off the metal floor.

These and more are memories Mason took back with him from Vietnam.

I was mentioning to someone today how fortunate I felt on the 75th Anniversary of Iwo Jima to drive the 50 miles to Stockton and hear 2 old Marines, one 94 and the other 104, tell us what it was like on Iwo Jima.

One of them was at the base of Suribachi when Joe Rosenthal shot that iconic photo. He narrowly missed a Japanese grenade. Still wounded him. The other, shot by a Nambu machine gun, decided with his wounded buddy to walk the mile or so to the aid station, because the Japanese were shooting the Corpsmen litter bearers. There was no help coming.

Both said that the “real heroes” were the ones who didn’t return.

Today on the F/B page Tuna posted a video about the last living WW2 Medal of Honor Recipient, Hershel Williams. Williams destroyed 7 Japanese pillboxes, saving his unit.

Two of the Marine riflemen providing cover fire that enabled him to get to those concrete bunkers were later killed.

Williams has said that he wears that medal not for himself, but for those riflemen.

Virtually every MOH Awardee I have heard of seems to have a similar humility.

It is funny where life takes you. The times in your life that may seem insignificant at the time turn out to be treasured slices of time. Time that if you were allowed, would revisit.

I thought little at the time of my time in the Army, ending up through a bureaucratic need in Germany rather than Vietnam. It turned out to be a period of time of which I was proud. I helped to make a small but meaningful contribution.

But I have told a few veterans over the last nearly 50 years that I have always carried a little guilt for not sharing the hardships of my fellow servicemen (and women) in harm’s way.

And my God, when those who suffered so much in battle that I admire look not to themselves but those who didn’t return…

We should remember them.

4 Comments

Filed under Army Aviation, Books, Heroes Among Us

4 responses to “The Ones Who Didn’t Return

  1. Old AF Sarge

    Well said.

  2. Stephen Arnold

    Yes. I feel the pangs of that guilt as well. Graduated high school in 75 as the choppers were lifting the last few off the roof of the embassy in Saigon. My friends who were a few years older all told stories of drug use and institutional rot in military leadership. Not disparaging, just framing my reality at that point. I took all the tests, spent a weekend in Salt Lake City with some buds drinking 3.2% beer supplied by a recruiter despite us all being underage, but didn’t sign. Angst. It’s real………….

    • There was a guy in my unit in Germany who they said was on heroin. Don’t know it to be a fact, though. I would think upon reflection that if he was, he couldn’t function at his post, and he did.

      Lots of Vietnam vets who had a lot of stories though.

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