Friday, May 14, 2010

The Road to Korea

After successfully completing Army flight school I took a brief leave back in Louisiana before shipping out for Korea my assignment of choice. I traveled alone to California where I was to be processed at Travis AFB for my journey overseas. I didn’t need a passport since I had a military ID card.

I took a tour of China Town before leaving California for Korea. The tail end of the tour we were treated to a meal at a Chinese restaurant. I remember their servers setting a bowl of steamed rice on the table. Being from south Louisiana I liked rice, but rice with lots of gravy. I looked at that bowl of steamed rice wondering what somebody could do with that. Then a man across the table started scooping gobs of this yellow gravy looking stuff onto his rice. I thought, “Yea, that looks like it works” as I copied what he was doing. I didn’t know what that yellow gravy looking stuff was until I took a bite of my rice now covered with the stuff. Chinese hot mustard!!! Oh homy... My sinuses cleared, my head cleared, and no telling what else cleared as the hot mustard did its sensory work on me. I kept my composure, but could only think, “might not always be a good idea to do as the natives do”. Otherwise I enjoyed the meal.

When I traveled to basic training I was with a friend also on his way to flight school. I was the only one who chose Korea as an assignment from my graduating flight class, so now I was traveling alone. That was alright with me, but I find adventures in life are usually always more enjoyable when shared with a friend. It can also be helpful to bounce decisions off of someone else too. “What’s that yellow gravy looking stuff that guy’s putting on his rice?” I had no friend to make this journey with until...

I rounded the corner of a hallway at Travis AFB and almost bumped into a CW2 Vietnam Veteran. This older more experienced man quickly looked over and sized up this young green WO1 (WO1 = Warrant Officer 1, CW2 = Chief Warrant 2). He flashed me a friendly smile and said, “Come on kid, I’ll take care of you”. He could have easily said, "Stay away from me greenhorn", but he chose to tuck me under his experienced wing.

His name was Chuck Hutchinson. It felt good to have someone to hang with who already knew the ropes. After being processed at Travis AFB they sent us to the Sacramento International Airport for a contracted civilian flight to take us overseas instead of a military transport. Chuck and I stepped into an airport lounge to get a drink for our journey. I’d been drinking in Louisiana since I was thirteen, I had a fake ID since I was fifteen, and the legal drinking age was 18 in Louisiana. I was now a military warrant officer and Army aviator, but I was only 19 and the legal drinking age in California was 21. I couldn’t buy a drink. I got to watch Chuck enjoy his while doing without. The situation would be different in Korea where I would stay until I turned 21 and got promoted to CW2.
Our plane landed at the Osan AFB in Korea in October of 1974 during the rice harvest season. I was sitting next to a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) whose uncle told her to write down her first impressions upon arrival in Korea. There were rice fields all along side the airstrip and korean women were manually harvesting the rice with sickles. She was freaking out. Having worked on a Soybean and Cattle farm while in high school and having operated combines, I did find the Korean method of harvesting rice rather interesting. Chuck said he saw three airmen on the side of the airfield as the plane went by one of them covered his eyes, another covered his ears, and the third covered his mouth. “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” This was going to be a different kind of experience. I had no idea what awaited me.

After landing Chuck and I were sent up to Seoul to the 6th P&A where in country assignments were made. After getting a good nights sleep we were in the latrine the next morning shaving and preparing to go meet our assignments officer. I looked down and noticed that the big toe on Chuck’s left foot was missing. I didn’t ask him about it, but I remember thinking, “Um, I wonder what happened there?”

I stood beside Chuck as we walked into the assignments officer’s office. The first words out of Chuck’s mouth was, “We want to go to the CAV!”

Chuck had been a cavalry officer in Vietnam. The assignments officer looked up at us from behind his desk with a jaundiced eye. I can imagine him thinking, “These guys WANT to go the the CAV?” I was later told by someone else that the CAV is not where you want to go. They spend an excessive amount of time in the field and attempt to be the best of the best where soldiering is concerned which usually amounts to excessive hardships for all but the most gung-ho individuals who relish the CAV experience. The assignments officer pulled out a book and as he opened it he said, “Well lets see what we have available.”

After looking through the book he said, “Sorry guys. I don’t have any openings at the CAV, but I can send you...” He looked at me, “ the 128th and I can send you...” He looked at Chuck, “ the 117th”. He was splitting us apart. Chuck accepted that without complaint. I didn’t know it then, but we were sent to the two best places you could be assigned to in Korea. These two companies had the largest variety of missions and offered the best possible aviation experiences that a kid fresh out of flight school could have. Chuck told me, “After I get settled in, I’ll be over to your unit to see who I know.”

We both got flown in by helicopter to our new units. My new company commander met me and gave me a tour of the company. His name was Maj.Carl Bierbaum. He was a good company commander and a good man. He looked at my youth and with a bit of fatherly advice cautioned me as he said, “You want to be careful with these older men. They’ll lead you to drinking and will take all your money playing cards.” I was both sober and polite as I responded, “Yes sir.” But, secretly inside I couldn’t help but think, “Alright! I’ve done landed in the right place!” considering my wild upbringing in South Louisiana. Can anyone say, “Boo-Ray”.

Later that afternoon I ended up in the company lounge where I began getting acquainted with some of these older men. Most of them were Vietnam Veterans. When they were young and green like me they had landed in a hostile country at war and most likely were met by a commanding officer that said, “There’s your aircraft son. Get after it.”

Chuck, true to his word, soon arrived and started hitting it off with a guy named Harry Stevenson. Harry’s nicknames were, “Crazy Harry and Dirty Harry”. Clint Eastwood didn’t have anything on him except maybe a little bit better looks.

Harry and Chuck began reminiscing about all these almost unbelievable war stories. I would soon learn about Chuck’s big toe on his left foot. Dwayne Gulker whose nick name was “Skid Tubes” because he came in too hot on a pinnacle landing once and knocked the landing gear of of his helicopter walked by Stevenson and said, “Where’d you find this guy to collaborate all of your stories Harry?” Harry just smiled. He was the real deal. Chuck told him to take good care of me because I seemed like a pretty good guy. Harry would be my most notable mentor in all of my aviation career and the one pilot I hold as definitely better than all the rest of the talent out there. He was only eighteen and became Cobra gunship lead while serving in Vietnam. He also flew loaches. A loach combined with a Cobra were called “Hunter/Killer teams”. Harry once told me that they used to toss a six pack in the back of the cobra for the flight home after the day was done. It was a different age and a different time than what pilots are now exposed to.
Harry had gotten a mission to try to find out where the hostile fire was coming from that was effectively taking down aircraft as they attempted to land at this one airstrip. He was flying a loach which at that time was a Hughes 500C aircraft whose military designation was the OH-6 Cayuse. His job was to loach around the area where the planes were getting shot and try to draw fire. Once he was able to draw fire and positively identify where it was coming from a Cobra gunship hanging out in the background would roll in and take the source of fire out.

After a bit of flying in the suspected area Harry finally drew fire. He could not tell where it was coming from though, so he pulled his loach into a high hover so he could get a better look. When he did (hover) the shooter popped him out of the sky. He received a minor wound, another purple heart, and some in-country R&R (Rest and Relaxation) until he recovered enough to go back to work. His mission was unsuccessful. He did not identify where the fire was coming from so the threat was still active and hostile.

Chuck then got assigned Harry’s mission. Chuck decided to go visit Harry before flying the mission to find out what information he could about it from Harry. The only thing Harry told him was, “Chuck, no matter what you do, don’t hover!”

Chuck said, “Okay”. And left to try and accomplish what Harry couldn’t.
After loaching around a bit, Chuck also drew fire. He couldn’t tell where it was coming from either. So what does he do? He pulled his loach into a high hover to get a better look. When he did, the round entered his chin bubble and took out Chuck’s left anti-torque pedal along with his big toe on his left foot. His helicopter spun down to the ground and crash landed. Chuck said his door gunner returned fire as they spun all the way to the ground. They were rescued and Chuck ended up joining Harry in his in-country R&R with his own purple heart. When Chuck saw Harry he said, “Harry. I hovered!”

Years later when I rehired with a small EMS helicopter company that had grown considerably larger than when I first worked for them I looked through the company phone book to see if there was anyone I knew. There was Chuck. I called him and had a nice phone visit. I then called Harry who was now employed with Executive Jet flying the rich and famous. I gave Harry Chuck’s number.

Harry called Chuck.

Chuck answers his phone, “Chuck Hutchinson”.

Harry says, “Whatever you do, DON’T HOVER!”

Chuck now confused says, “What? What do you mean don’t hover?”

Harry says, “Cause if you hover you’re going to leave your Big Toe in Vietnam!”

Chuck’s brain now made the connection, “Harry you ole son of a gun! What are you doing?”

I count both of these men as good friends. I can only imagine the depth of their personal friendship bonds through their Vietnam experience together.

Anyhow, back to the lounge at the 128th...

The evening progressed and the men told me they used to make new guys like me drink an initiation drink called a “GMF”, (The G was for green because the drink was a shot of everything behind the bar topped off with Creme de mint to make it green) but Maj. Bierbaum had outlawed the practice.

I said, “I can order whatever I want. Mix me one up.” And, so they did...

It was a memorable evening after the GMF, though barely.

I’ve never done too well playing cards. I usually get disciplined by losing. I did sit through a few card games while in Korea though. Whenever Maj. Bierbaum would walk by and observe, I’d be raking in the pots. I wish I could have hired him to watch all my games, cause I might have turned out an overall winner instead of a gambling loser.

Maj. Bierbaum never said much to me after that 1st night except with a smile, “How are you Robert?” He was now a teetotaler like I’m finally no longer a drunkard, but I’m sure he had his day. He was a good company commander and I had the opportunity to fly with him a time or two. I would know three company commanders in that unit before I finally returned to the states. I extended for an extra year, so I spent two years there. I flew 500 hours my first year and 700 hours my second. I got to see a lot of men come and go since Korea was only a one year hardship tour. Harry saw me come and go, because he spent a total of 4 years there. Somebody later told me Harry stayed in Korea so long to allow the statue of limitations to expire before returning to Fort Hood in Texas... I really don’t know if that assumption is based in fact, I can only imagine. There are a few more tall tales involving Mr. Stevenson if I hopefully get around to them.

Because of the men in that company taking the time to groom me and show me the ropes, my flying was pretty good. We all partied hard, but we also worked hard. They were all very professional and capable in spite of their after hours recreational proclivities. In all my adult work experience, there has been nothing that comes close to comparing with the time I spent in the Republic of South Korea.

Korea was quite the experience and the most enjoyable and notable of all my adult working life.

"Behind an able man there are always other able men."

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