Five Thousand Destroyed
Thomas Calabrese…..Marine Corps Second Lieutenant Joe Snyder was the youngest pilot in the Vietnam War when he arrived in Danang on June 11, 1966, which was one year before the Bell Helicopter company delivered the first shipment of AH-1G Huey Cobra attack helicopters. Joe turned twenty years of age during his second week in country, but going into his third combat tour, Captain Snyder had been baptized by flaming napalm and transformed by enemy bullets from a naïve baby faced boy to a seasoned veteran who had aged far beyond his chronological years. He was now a HAC, the official military designation for Helicopter Aircraft Commander and had logged over a thousand missions in every type of assault and transport helicopters in the Vietnam theater of operations.
Joe grew up in Fallbrook, California on his parents’ small farm and every time he saw a helicopter from Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base fly overhead, he would say to himself, “I’m going to fly one of those someday.”
He got a part time job at the Fallbrook Air Park when he was a senior in high school, cutting grass and running errands for the pilots who kept their private planes there. One of the pilots was a World War II and Korean War ace who occasionally did stunt work for Hollywood studios and flew in air races. His name was Tony ‘Doc’ Santini, a larger than life individual who stood five foot seven, but cast a giant shadow with his numerous accomplishments. Anthony Santini went to UCLA medical school after returning from the Korea War and became a noted orthopedic surgeon who never lost his passion for flying.
Doc took a liking to the young boy who had a boundless enthusiasm for flying and a burning desire to serve in the military, “I respect your decision, but war looks a lot more glamorous on the movie screen than it does in real life.”
“I am aware of that fact, sir, “Joe replied, “I bet when you joined up, you weren’t thinking about the dangers, your country needed your services and you answered the call. I’d like to do the same.”
“When you put it that way, I don’t see how I can disagree with you. If I can do anything to help, then let me know.”
“Tell me about flying,” Joe replied without hesitation.
Over the nine months, Doc taught Joe everything he knew about flying and the young boy soaked it up like a giant sponge. Joe had a natural aptitude for flying and Doc was continuously amazed by how quickly the young boy picked up the little things that separated the great pilots from the average ones. Joe also had a feel for the aircraft, like how far to push it without crossing the line. This was something that could not be taught, it was natural instinct that a pilot was either born with it or never attained.
Joe began taking college courses while he was a junior in high school and by the time, he graduated, he had accumulated a year and one half of college credits. The Vietnam War was ramping up and the Marine Corps was desperately short of helicopter pilots. Doc used his connections in the military to take Joe on Camp Pendleton on a regular basis, where he showed him everything about the operation of rotary aircraft. He also got permission from the squadron commander to let Joe go on several training flights with flight crews.
Joe intently watched the helicopter pilots as they went through their list of flight maneuvers until he could precisely duplicate them in his mind and eventually improve upon them.
After graduation, Joe immediately enlisted in the Marine Corps and with Doc Santini’s influence; he was afforded the opportunity to go to Pensacola Florida helicopter flight school directly after completing boot camp in San Diego. There was nothing that the instructors could teach Joe that he didn’t already know, in fact he was more knowledgeable than all of them combined. The Vietnam War put a severe manpower strain on the Corps so a lot of rules and regulations were broken or bent to quickly get the right men into combat. Instead of wasting precious time putting him through the entire program, the Marine Corps allowed Joe to test out and he set records for proficiency on the written test and the flying course.
Joe received twenty days leave before shipping out for the Nam’ and at the end of that time he was at the Fallbrook airport saying his farewells before leaving to catch his flight at March Air Force base in Riverside County the next morning.
“Be careful what you wish for…you just might get it,” Doc Santini advised.
“I can’t say you didn’t warn me, whatever happened from this point forward is on my shoulders, I know that,” Joe smiled, “I own it.”
“I am proud to call you my friend and honored to call you a United States Marine,” Doc Santini wiped away a single tear as he fought to control his emotions, “Watch your six over there.”
The helicopters were lined up in three rows on the level part of Hill 492. It was affectionately called the ‘junkpile’ by flight crews and maintenance personnel. Helicopters were constantly being cannibalized to keep as many of them flight worthy as possible. A shot-up CH-46 Sea Knight would come in after a mission and mechanics would rush to take undamaged parts off it and put them on another aircraft.
One Huey SeaCobra sat by itself and had the word ‘Avocado’ and an image of the ripe green fruit painted on it. Maintenance personnel never took parts off this helicopter. In fact they always made sure it was fueled, fully maintained and ready to go at a moment’s notice because this was the helicopter of Captain Joe Snyder.
Joe looked at his watch as he ate his breakfast in the messhall and saw that it was zero six thirty hours and he was due for a flight at zero seven hundred. He finished his omelet, gulped down the remainder of his orange juice and got up.
Mess Sergeant Larry Nelson called out, “How was the omelet?”
“Great as usual, appreciate it,” Captain Snyder replied.
By the time Joe reached his helicopter, First Lieutenant Andy ‘Rambler’ McCallum was just completing the pre- flight check with several maintenance personnel. They immediately stopped what they were doing and respectfully waited for Joe to speak, “Any problems?”
“We’re ready to go,” Rambler responded.
“They don’t pay us to stay grounded…let’s earn our pay.”
The ‘Avocado’ was airborne in less than two minutes and headed to the Danang airfield. While on their way, they picked up a desperate radio transmission from a Marine Corps rifle platoon’s radio operator, that North Vietnamese soldiers had ambushed them, “May day! May Day!! We’re about to be overrun, we need help”
“What are your coordinates?” Joe asked calmly.
“The Marine rattled off a series of numbers and Andy found it on his map, “Got it.”
“We’re on our way, mark your position with yellow smoke, “What direction is Charlie?” Joe inquired.
“Due west of our position!” The radioman screamed in panic over the sounds of gunfire and incoming mortars.
“We’re coming in hot and heavy,” Joe warned.
The rifle platoon was outnumbered three to one and the incoming fire was so heavy and deadly that the Marines could barely lift their heads high enough to return fire without being shot or hit with shrapnel.
Joe saw the yellow smoke in the distance and turned his aircraft so that he would be coming directly over the Marines’ position. The skids of the ‘Avocado’ were only five feet above the ground and once they cleared the yellow smoke, Andy opened fire with the Emerson Electric Turret which consisted of two M-60 machine guns loaded with five hundred rounds and riddled the enemy’s position. Joe swung around and made another strafing run and fired three 2.75 inch rockets that exploded in the middle of the North Vietnamese soldiers’ position. The ‘Avocado’ made two more passes to make sure that the Marines were no longer receiving incoming fire.
“You guys alright?” Joe radioed.
“Now we are!” The radio operator sighed in relief, “Thanks for your help.”
Joe came in low and hovered ten feet over the Marines’ position and waved to let them know that he was continuing on his way. One slightly wounded Marine turned to his comrade when he noticed the emblem on the SeaCobra, “Is that the…
The other Marine flashed a wide smile, “We just got our asses saved by ‘The Hac’.”
When the ‘Avocado’ landed at the Danang Airport, both pilots exited the cockpit, “We’re low on ammo, restock us,” Joe said to a Sergeant who approached him.”
“Sure thing, Hac.”
Joe and Andy walked over to where a Ch-46 transport helicopter that was being loaded with mailbags, ammunition and various supplies.
Andy called out to the loadmaster, “Make sure that they balance and secure that load.”
“Roger that, I’m watching ‘em. It will done right, don’t worry.”
Joe and Andy were sitting at a wooden table with a canvas canopy over it while they waited for the ground crew to finish. Staff Sergeant Jerry Zwicker walked over with two large bowls of ice cream, whipped topping and hot fudge and set them in from of Joe and Andy, “I saw you fly in.”
“You sure know how to treat pilots around here,” Joe took a big mouthful of the ice cream, “I might have to come around more often.”
“Don’t thank me, thank General Baxter. He ordered fifty gallons for some senators and congressmen coming in from Washington to see how America’s finest are doing against the evil communist monster.”
“You almost sound bitter,” Andy laughed.
I’m not bitter, I love it here,” Jerry’s statement was dripping with sarcasm, “What about you, Hac, you’ve been here longer than any of us.”
“I don’t worry about things that I can’t control,” Joe was obviously more interested in the instant gratification of his ice cream than the discussion.
“That simple…really?” Jerry was amazed.
“What do you want, the meaning of life written on a c-ration carton?” Joe smiled, “a cold bowl of ice cream on a hot day, a helicopter with fuel and ammo and a clear target…what else do I really need?”
The loadmaster called out, “Hac, you’re ready to go?”
“Thanks for the ice cream,” Andy said.
“Be careful, The NVA gunners have got the airfield locked in, we lost a C-130 yesterday,” Jerry warned.
Joe knew the two door gunners that would be flying with him and felt confident in their abilities. Corporal Benjamin ‘Kid Broccoli’ Brancato was a brash kid from Kansas City, Missouri, who was always quick to respond with bravado and a devious smile. Kid Broccoli would be a hoodlum or a wannabe wise guy if he wasn’t in the Marines.
“How are you doing today, Kid?” Joe asked.
“I’ll be feeling a lot better once I get me some Victor Charlies in my sights.”
“I’ll see what I can do for you,” Joe said.
The other door gunner was Sergeant Zachary Wheat, who was called ‘Biscuit’. He was a quiet Mormon boy from Salt Lake City, who could usually be found reading a book when he wasn’t flying. Joe felt that one of the best things about military service and combat in particular was that men could come from totally different backgrounds that have nothing in common and who would never socialize back in the ‘World’ could come together in a solitary mission that united them in a goal that was greater than themselves.
“Ready to fly today, Biscuit?” Joe asked.
“Yes sir,” Biscuit replied simply and slipped his paperback novel into his flight suit.
The men of 26th Marines was in a precarious position, they were surrounded and taking heavy fire on a daily basis from North Vietnamese positions. Getting in and out of Khe Sanh was also extremely dangerous and many pilots of fixed wing and rotary aircraft dreaded going there. Joe, on the other hand was flying to the beleaguered camp every other day and this was his fifteenth mission since the siege began. Because of the dangers, Joe did not expect the same crew to take the same risks as him so he flew with different personnel on each flight.
Joe developed a system with the loadmaster where his entire payload was placed on pallets with wheels. Joe came in low, skimming the treetops until he got within two hundred yards of the Khe Sanh landing strip, then banked hard right and touched down. Andy lowered the rear ramp and Kid Broccoli and Biscuit released the tiedown straps and pushed everything out. As soon as everything was out, Joe took off, while Marines on the ground rushed to get their mails and supplies. The entire maneuver took less than thirty seconds and the NVA gunners did not have enough time to sight in on Joe’s chopper, but they still dropped dozens of mortars on the area after he took off.
Joe waited for the bombardment to cease then came in from the other direction and landed. The wounded were loaded first, then the men who were rotating out of country were the next to rush on. Bags of outgoing mail were thrown aboard and Joe was airborne in less than a minute. The NVA dropped mortars on the airfield, but they were a few second too late.
The ‘Hac’ landed at Danang airfield and the flight crew exited the aircraft as hospital corpsman and nurses attended to the wounded and maintenance personnel unloaded the mail bags.
“Good job,” Andy called to the door gunners.
“No problem, I’ve always got time to fly with the Hac,” Kid Broccoli quipped.
“Thank you, sir.” Biscuit replied.
“Joe and Andy got back into the Avocado and flew back to the ‘Junkpile.’ Both men were dirty, sweaty and exhausted so their first stop was the shower facility where they washed away the remains of the day. Joe had his own private hooch, constructed of sheet metal, screen and plywood, not because he thought he deserved it, but because he was flying so much more than the other pilots in the squadron that he needed to rest without being disturbed. Joe was a light sleeper, but a quick one as well so as soon as his head head hit the rack, he was out. Dreams of Fallbrook, California, his family and Doc Santini filled his cluttered mind and for the time being, Joe was that young carefree boy again.
“Hac, sorry to disturb you”
Joe looked up and saw Corporal Buckman standing next to his rack, “What’s up, Buck?”
They ordered me to come get you,” Corporal Buckman answered, “I told them that you were sleeping, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“Some knucklehead General and his bonehead Colonel sidekick,” Corporal Buckman replied.
“They didn’t tell you what they wanted, did they?”
“That’s above my rank. I could always tell them I couldn’t find you, if you want to take off,” Corporal Buckman suggested.
“That’s alright, I’m awake already, besides they would probably just hounddog my trail. Tell them, I ‘ll be there in a couple mikes,” Joe said
Joe put on a pair of cut-off camouflage utilities trousers, slipped on his Ho Chi Minh sandals and a clean t-shirt and left his hooch. When he arrived at the command center, Brigadier General Harold Westmore and Colonel Gordon Grimes were impatiently waiting.
“Is that what you wear when you are ordered to see a superior officer?” Colonel Grimes snapped.
Joe wiped the sleep from his eyes and ignored the question, “Somebody want to see me?”
Major Ron Garrison interjected, “The General and Colonel have a problem that they think you can help them out with.”
“We don’t have a problem personally, this is a military issue,” Colonel Grimes snapped back.
“I get it; nobody is at fault, what’s the problem?” Joe asked.
A map was sitting on a table and Major Garrison walked over to it and pointed to a spot with a red X on it, “Colonel Charlie Moore and a small group of his men are stranded on this hilltop.”
Joe looked at the map for a couple seconds, “That doesn’t sound like ‘Charging Charlie’ to be stuck at this location.”
“Why is that, Captain?” General Westmore inquired.
“It is the smallest of the mountains, surrounded by higher ones.” ‘Charging Charlie’ would never put his men in a position where the enemy has the high ground around him. That’s a moron’s move and Colonel Moore is no moron.”
“Colonel Moore was following orders!” Colonel Grimes growled, “Why he is there is not your concern, Captain!”
From General Westmore’s embarrassed expression, it was obvious that he was the moron who gave the order, “Most of his unit were able to walk out, but Colonel Moore decided to stay behind with the seriously wounded,” General Westmore explained.
“First in…last out, that’s Colonel Moore’s philosophy. He always leads from the front.”
“He may face disciplinary actions for staying behind, but that is yet to be determined,” Colonel Grimes retorted.
“That’s why he’s a leader and you’re just an officer who wears the rank,” Joe coldly stated.
Colonel Grimes became so irate that he just stood there and stammered. Major Garrison grabbed him by the arm, “Let’s take a walk, Colonel…I need to show you something,”
After Major Garrison and Colonel Grimes left, General Westmore spoke, “They say you’re the best chopper pilot in Nam.’
“I save the word best for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice; I’m just a Marine trying to do his job.”
Twenty minutes later, Joe was at the communication center as a radio operator reached Alpha Two Six, Colonel Moore’s position, then handed the radio to Joe.
“Alpha Two Six, this is Juliet Sierra, radio code for Joe Snyder,”
Colonel Moore and his twenty men were set up in a three sixty defensive position, using shattered trees and rocks for cover, “I recognize that voice, is that you Hotel?” code for Hac.
“Affirmative, Situation Report.”
Colonel Moore could see the specks of lights all over the surrounding mountainsides, “They can take us out anytime they want, they’re just waiting for some crazy pilot to try and fly in here so they get us all at one time. This is ambush central, recommend abort rescue mission.”
“Recommendation denied…crazy pilot out.”
Joe went directly to 11th Marines Artillery Regiment and talked to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Cobb, the officer in charge and showed him a map, “I need a barrage at these coordinates and at these precise times. At 2051 hours, drop high explosives, at 2056 hours, drop smoke and at 2059, I need flares, but only on this hilltop, cease the flares at 2103 hours. Repeat high explosives at same coordinates from 2104 hours to 2106 and smoke from 2107 to 2110. I need you to be right on time, no delays.”
“You got it, Hac,” Lt. Colonel Cobb promised.
Joe called the flight crews together on the tarmac, “I’ve got a rough one, so think twice before volunteering.”
Everybody in attendance knew that if Hac said it was going to be rough, it must be really bad because he never said anything about his missions. Despite their fears and trepidations, every pilot and crew member did not hesitate to raise their hands.
Joe was very familiar with the Quang Tri Province and the Khe Sanh Valley, having flown over it dozens of times and Colonel Moore and his men were trapped on Hill 743, between Dong Ha and Dak To. Joe was used to flying low, but that was during daylight hours, but this would be a night flight with cloud cover and a whole different set of circumstances.
Joe took off and gauged his speed to reach the valley at the appropriate time. He got there at 2050 hours and dropped down to treetop level. The door gunners swore they heard the top of the trees brushing up against the bottom of the chopper. The mortar rounds started exploding above the helicopter’s altitude. They were so close to the face of the mountain that debris was falling in front of the helicopter.
Co–pilot Lieutenant Dan ‘Dude’ Danielson was ashen white as he saw the treetops several inches below him and the burning embers above him. Some debris even flew through the rear opening of the chopper and one of the gunners picked up a tree branch and tossed it aside.
Smoke rounds fell next and turned the valley into a fog filled hole with almost zero visibility. Joe began flying from memory for a few hundred yards and when the CH-46 came out of the smoke, it was directly above Hill 743. At this time the illumination flares started illuminating the area. Joe had just enough light to touch down in an area that was barely large enough to clear the rotor blades. Once Colonel Moore and his men were aboard, Joe timed his exit to fly through the same diversions on the way out of the Khe Sanh Valley leaving North Vietnamese gunners completely frustrated.
Joe flew directly to the Naval Hospital in China Beach so that the seriously injured Marines could get immediate medical treatment.
Colonel Moore approached Joe with appreciation in his eyes, “Thanks for saving my men.”
“It was my pleasure,” Joe replied and the two warriors embraced each other. It was obvious that they had a profound respect for each other and would rather die than leave a comrade behind.
It was the next morning and Joe and Colonel Moore were having breakfast at the hospital messhall when Lt. Andy McCallum entered and walked over to their table.
“I heard you were here,” Andy said.
“You two know each other, don’t you?” Joe asked.
“Yeah, how are doing, Lt?” Colonel Moore said.
“Good, how about you, Colonel?” Andy replied.
“A lot better than I was yesterday at this time.”
“We’ve got a slight problem,” Andy said.
“Does anybody ever come to you when they don’t need help?” Colonel Moore asked.
“Once in a while…rarely…what kind of problem?”
“Major Garrison punched out Colonel Grimes and the Military Police arrested him. I heard they’re going to court martial him for assaulting a superior officer,” Andy said.
“Why would he punch that idiot?”
“I don’t know exactly, but it had something to do with you. Colonel Grimes was ripping you pretty good and I guess Garrison lost his temper.”
“Where is Grimes right now?” Joe asked.
“He’s here, he had to get medical treatment.” Andy said, “Maybe you can use your unusual powers of persuasion to convince him to drop the charges.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Joe promised.
Colonel Moore interrupted, “I know Grimes, why don’t you let me talk to him. I’m pretty sure he’ll listen to me.”
“Why is that?” Joe asked.
“You came for me; trust me to be there for you.”
When Colonel Moore found Colonel Grimes, he was in his hospital room with his jaw wired shut, “Don’t worry about talking…just listen…I was going to request mast about this mission and all the things that got screwed up, but I might be inclined to change my mind on one condition.”
Later that day Major Garrison was notified that the charges against him were dropped and he was free to return to his command.
Over the course of the Vietnam War, 5086 helicopters were destroyed out of 11,827. There were even more helicopter aircraft commanders during that time frame, but there was only one of them who was ever called, ‘The Hac.’