The 25th Infantry Division Association
CHAPTERS FROM TROPIC LIGHTNING HISTORY: VIETNAM
25th Infantry Division "Shotgun" Vietnam
By Thomas A. Jones • With Help from SGM (Ret) John Boyce • MSG (Ret) Dan Marthers
Photos by CPT Richard H. Beal &
25th Infantry Helicopter Doorgunner "Shotgun " Website
118th Aviation Company "Thunderbirds" Website (www.118ahc.org)
U-Tube video: Operation Shotgun training
Thanks to author and 25th IDA past president Tom Jones, 14th Infantry Regiment, for permission to reprint this article
published in the 25th Infantry Division Association's Winter 2011-12 issue of Tropic Lightning Flashes.
Many Americans who ended up serving in Vietnam grew up in the 1950's watching Western movies in which the Stagecoach driver always had another armed man sitting next to him riding "Shotgun" for protection against armed bandits. Or young people approaching a car would yell out "Shotgun" to indicate that they wanted to be the passenger riding on the coveted front window seat on the right side.
Perhaps military leaders in the 1960's had these things in mind when in late 1962 they chose the name "Operation Shotgun" when they assigned the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii to one of the most highly classified programs of the Vietnam War. As history would have it, many of these young soldiers who "earned their wings" and were "blooded" in the skies over Vietnam in the early '60's went on the serve with distinction when the entire 25th Infantry Division was deployed to war in 1966.
Prior to 1963 all American fighting men ordered to Vietnam were sent on "advisor" status to the South Vietnamese Army. They were not permitted to go into offensive combat unless first fired upon by the Communist forces. In order to increase the mobility of our allies, U.S. Army transport helicopters and their crews were also sent to Vietnam. But as the military action in Vietnam heated up, enemy ground fire on these unarmed helicopters began to take a toll.
Sometime in early 1962, Military Assistance and Advisor Group (MAAG) requested help with this problem and the 25th Infantry Division was tasked with providing a solution by supplying professionally trained machine gunners to man weapons mounted at the helicopter's side doors.
Because the U.S. Government didn't want to acknowledge any kind of a troop buildup in S.E. Asia, the operation was initially classified as Top Secret. Young Officers with the proper security clearance were advised of the program and offered an opportunity to volunteer for 90 day overseas Temporary Duty assignments leading Soldiers that they would interview, select and train.
SFC (Ret.) Frankie Willard, who served in Company C, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry from 1961 to 1967, submitted his recollections to the "Shotgunners" website (www.25th-infantry-div-shotgunner.com) of how volunteer Enlisted gunners were approached. He recalls that men interested in volunteering were invited to a morning meeting at the Schofield Barracks main post theatre. Once all were inside and seated, the 25th Infantry Division Commander took the stage and said words that were "forever embedded" in Willard's mind: "Thanks for coming, but before I get started I have something to say. Some of you will be selected to go in harm's way and you could be killed. If you do not desire to go I will wait for you to get up and leave right now." The General stopped talking and Willard notes that quite a few did get up and leave. The theatre doors were then closed and Military Policemen were posted before the Division G-2 and G-3 gave the men a classified briefing on the tactical situation in Vietnam and the training that they would receive, if selected.
Before these men interested in becoming gunners were even interviewed they were all given a very thorough Class III flight physical examination, much like pilots had to endure. Items checked included weight and physical condition, hearing, and vision, to include color blindness. PFC Leonard R. Hooks, Company C, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry thought he was in excellent condition because he played on his Brigade's football team. He was stunned to find out that the weight limit for gunners was 200 lbs. Hooks was determined to make THIS team and recalls working out in a rubber suit for hours and sparring with a large wrestler friend in order to drop five pounds before he successfully passed a re-test.
Those deemed physically qualified were then carefully interviewed by the Officers who had already been screened and selected to lead the gunners. The psychological makeup of these men was also critical, so the questioning was designed to weed out any who might not be able to operate under the extreme and varied pressures of aerial combat.
The "cream of the crop" from many volunteers then passed on to an intense training program prior to their assignment to aviation units in Vietnam. They had all been sworn to secrecy, but Bob Jones, an aggressive young reporter from the Honolulu Advertiser, picked up bits and pieces of a story that he was forced to suppress until April, 1965 when the Editor noted: "Yesterday the Army lifted a two-year news ban and allowed an Advertiser team to witness a training session in Makua Valley for 353 more Schofield GI's who will leave soon for Saigon." Bob led off his story by saying, "these men are professional aerial machine gunners. They have seen more combat action than any other U.S. forces in Viet Nam, and they are the only American troops who have had a license to kill."
The training he and his team witnessed was heavily loaded with weapons training emphasizing function, care and maintenance. The men had to know how to quickly field strip and repair their guns, as well as how to spontaneously react to stoppages. They were taught the techniques of both daylight and night aerial observation and firing from various altitudes. Accuracy was constantly emphasized, particularly in the critical descent to a landing zone phase of flight. The gunners were also familiarized with formation flying and the importance of the gunners keeping an eye on any accompanying helicopters as suppressive fire was applied and the crews assisted ground troops quickly onto or off the choppers.
25th Infantry troops were already jungle trained, but the gunners were given additional training on escape and evasion and jungle survival should they be involved in emergency landings. They were taught to swim fully clothed and how to maneuver in fast running rivers and streams like those found in parts of Vietnam. They were also given refresher training in the Code of Conduct in case of capture at the 25th Division's unique Special Asian Warfare Training Center.
On completion of their training the men were surprised when they were issued Passports and told they would be provided Visas when they arrived in Saigon. They were then flown to Vietnam in secret, usually dressed in short sleeved khaki uniforms and armed with .45 caliber pistols.
As normal GI's, they joked about it and to this day the 25th Infantry Helicopter Doorgunner "Shotgun" website proudly states that they were "Armed American Tourists Who Would Be Guests of the Vietnamese Government." These tourists were funneled out to Army Helicopter units that were flying missions every day of the week from supplies ("Ash and Trash runs - fish heads and rice" they'd say) to taking personnel from Point A to Point B. On occasion it would involve a Combat Assault; inserting ARVN troops and their U.S. Advisors into Landing Zones (LZ).
The early Shotgun Platoons arriving in Vietnam served aboard the somewhat ancient Piasecki H-21C ("flying banana") helicopters, a model which was named "Shawnee" by the Army but irreverently referred to as "flying coffins" by pilots and air crews alike. (opposite page at bottom)
The gunners used heavy .30 caliber air cooled, WW II and Korea vintage Browning machine guns mounted on a pedestal at the right door. (Note gun clearing pit at left with a .30 cal)
Shotgun Platoon members were proud of their 25th Infantry Divisoin and Regimental heritage and designed colorful patches sewed by local Vietnamese tailors to be displayed on their uniforms.
By late 1963 the Army upgraded the transport helicopters in Vietnam to the famous Bell UH-1 Utility Helicopter that became the signature vehicle of the war. Its official Army name was the "Iroquois," but crews never used that name. Instead, its initial Army designation HU-1, turned into the user nickname "Huey" and the rest is history. The door guns in these aircraft were the Army's relatively new M-60 machine gun that fired the standard NATO 7.62 mm bullet.
As it turned out, the TDY Shotgun Platoons played an important part in the development of how helicopter door guns came to be mounted; kind of an evolutionary result of "on the job training." Prior to mid-1965 the majority of the machine gun were of the "homespun variety." One gunner recalls: "for the most, part it was a hodgepodge of 'thrown together, off the wall' mounting systems that were improvised in-country. My recollection is that less than half were metal fabrications. Usually they were just some kind of a hanging device. I've seen M-60's hanging from the roof of the bird by their issued carrying strap, with the strap around the carrying handle on the barrel. A similar "mount" to the carrying strap was the same idea, but with a bungee cord. There were also variants of the solid metal mounts; minor changes that appealed to someone, sometime, someplace." The important thing to the volunteers was that they worked.
MG William Westmoreland got involved in the issue in August, 1965 and "Shotgun X" volunteer SGM (Ret.) John Boyce, Company C, 1st Battalion 14th Infantry (Golden Dragons), assigned to the 118th Aviation Company (Thunderbirds) at Bien Hoa recalls the tale of the "Helicopter Inspection Mission" as follows:
"We met on a soccer pitch somewhere in or near Saigon. As usual, our crew had been flying all day when we got the call to report to that soccer field. I'm assuming the man with the clout and an eye for uniformity got every one together with the idea of standardizing Huey gun mounts. We were the last ones there so Blue Tail 4 sat down somewhere out on the edge of things. There were 8-10-12 of the shiniest, most brightly polished, sparkling helicopters I had ever seen sitting there. Their chin bubbles were gleaming, cabins were spit-shined, the rotor blades were tied down just so - they must have been there all day getting all dolled up! Not us; we had been flying hard all day.
"All of our bullet holes were properly patched but our chin bubbles were full of sand, an oil smear was leaking out from somewhere near the transmission inspection port, the cargo deck was slimy from an earlier load of fish in wicker baskets. Everyone else there was in starched fatigues (funny smelling potato starch as I recall) with spit-shined boots. The Aircraft Commander (AC) was having a kitten because he'd just heard that 'Westy' was here to inspect helicopters (probably saw his career going down the tubes!).
"The General had started way over on the far side and gradually we began to realize it was the gun mounts that he found to be of interest. As I watched I got the feeling that these other crew members might be hand picked just for this dog and pony show, maybe even from well above the rank they were now wearing. They seemed to have memorized their lines and I thought 'what a bunch of crap' and lost interest in the show and settled down for the long wait.
"My guess is that Westmoreland, wearied by the obvious theatrical performances he was being subjected to from the earlier crews, spun around on his heels and sauntered over to the battle scarred bird that we had just landed; maybe there was something real here after all. I was leaning into the cargo floor of the bird trying to pretend to be cleaning it when a voice behind me asked 'is this your ship?' (DAMN, it was him!!) 'Yes Sir,' I answered, 'It is.' 'Can you show it to me?' 'Yes Sir, I can' - and did. I showed him the advantage of having a solid gun mount and how you clip a C-ration can into the ammo pouch clip on the M-60 to get the belt to come over a smooth radius rather than a sharp right angle up to the gun. I showed him how we carefully loaded our 1,200 round continuous belt of 7.62 ammo into a smoke grenade box. (As I recall the 118th carried more than twice what most other chopper companies carried.) It was very relaxed; he was asking and I was answering.
"He noticed a piece of 90 MPH green Army tape on the lid of the small compartment in the airframe between the pilot's door and the cargo door on which I had written "U.S. Mail" with a felt marker. He looked at it, opened it and pulled out 6-7 letters collected from Special Forces camps, ARVN HQ's and MACV folks from all around III Corps. In those days you could trim off the tabs from a C-ration box, print FREE VIETNAM in the upper right corner and you had the basis for a letter you could send home....and it would get there! I remember he looked at them for a moment and got real quiet. He might have even read parts of a couple, I can't say. What I can say is, after a moment, he swung his legs around in the cargo door, dropped his feet onto the skid, fanny on the floor and had his minions call everyone over to our chopper.
"In a split second he transformed from friendly questioner to the Commanding General, MACV. I was sitting in my seat behind my gun at that point and, seeing what was going on, started to get down to join the crowd. 'Westy' held out his arm and stopped me and had me stay where I was. EM's Warrants and Commissioned Officers all gathered up tight in front of the gunner side cargo door of Blue Tail 4.....forty or fifty folks. I took up the most military-looking sitting position I could imagine and stayed put. I don't recall everything he might have said. I don't recall what he said about gun mounts. I suppose he gave a standard 'to the troops spiel' as well, but don't remember that either.
"What I do remember was his talking about the yet undecided status of the proposed Gunner Wings. We all thought it should be a distinctive combat award, not just an everyday qualification badge. Almost all gunners wore the 'G' (flight wings) but there was a lot of question as to whether it would be authorized. It was the last thing he talked about and I remember his line on it and it was the last thing he said sitting there. 'It's not decided yet, but I think it will be soon, so you wear them until I tell you to take them off.' I have worn the winged 'G' ever since and still proudly display it on my Dress Blues and I think of Westy every time I look at it.". (John Boyce and the "Thunderbirds" were involved in the Battle of DongXoai in June 1965 and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing several severely wounded Special Forces advisors under intense enemy fire.)
These young men flew through thick and thin and served their country well. Bob Jones continued to cover their story and in late 1965, as the 25th Infantry Division prepared to ship out to Vietnam, the Honolulu Advertiser carried the headline "Schofield Shotgun Project Stopped". Sometime prior to that, in a speech before the U.S. Senate and recorded in the Congressional Record, Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii said: "Within the 25th Infantry Division there is an elite corps of officers and men carrying on the finest traditions of the American fighting man. They are called shotgunner by their friends and a far worse name by the Viet Cong who they volunteer to fight. They know who the enemy of world freedom is; they believe in what they are doing, and as a 25th Infantry motto states, they are 'Ready to Strike; Anywhere!! Anytime!!"'
The final Advertiser news story reported that a total of 2,145 volunteer aerial machine gunners had participated. Because of the classified nature of this program, accurate statistics on their wounded and killed, as well as on Awards and Decorations they earned are sketchy. The men who flew at the time were aware of their lost comrades and included their names on colorful guidons such as the one shown from Shotgun 10 in 1965.
We are grateful to 25th Infantry Division Association member Dick Arnold of the Coffelt Data Project for providing us with the names of the 26 Shotgunners killed in Vietnam from 1963-1965. May they rest in peace.
|DATE KILLED||NAME||REGIMENTAL UNIT|
|17 Jan 1964||Christmas, Loye Thomas||A/1/5 INF (Mech) (Bobcats)|
|09 Mar 1964||Shea, John Francis||560th MP Company|
|10 Feb 1965||Collins, Horace Cleveland||C/1/5 INF (Mech) (Bobcats)|
|29 Jun 1964||Donaldson, Everette Leroy||B/l/5 INF (Mech) (Bobcats)|
|07 Oct 1964||Bain, Thomas Arthur||B/1/14 INF (Golden Dragons)|
|08 Dec 1964||Shelton, Arthur Alexander||B/1/27INF (Wolfhounds)|
|30 Dec 1964||Winowitch, Thomas Alan||HHC/1/35 INF (Cacti)|
|01 Apr 1965||Osborn, Jerry Wayne||HHC/1/5 INF (Mech) (Bobcats)|
|06 Apr 1965||Torres-Riviera, Rafael||A Troop/3/4 Cavalry|
|19 Apr 1965||Millay, Charles Francis||Company B, 25th Aviation BN|
|19 Apr 1965||Mills, Terry Wayne||A/2/27 INF (Wolfhounds)|
|08 May 1965||Irving, John William||C/l/14 INF (Golden Dragons)|
|06 Jun 1965||Gray, Walter Ray||C/7/11 ARTY (Dong Xoai)|
|06 Jun 1965||Hagen, Craig Louis||A/1/14 INF (Golden Dragons)|
|12 Jun 1965||Reed, Kenneth Leroy||A/3/13 ARTY|
|29 Jun 1965||Pitsenbarger, Dennis Stover||B/2/35 INF (Cacti)|
|09 Jul 1965||Hall, James Albert||B/2/9 ARTY|
|20 Jul 1965||Triplett, Johnny Ray||B/l/27 INF (Wolfhounds)|
|01 Sep 1965||Arcand, Donald Leonard||B/1/5 INF (Mech) (Bobcats)|
|02 Sep 1965||Gill, David Eugene||A/1/14 INF (Golden Dragons)|
|09 Sep 1965||Hipke, Harry Allan||HHC, DIV ARTY|
|18 Sep 1965||Rytter, Paul E.||C/1/14 INF (Golden Dragons)|
|19 Sep 1965||Ball, John Robert||A/l/27 INF (Wolfhounds)|
|20 Oct 1965||McDonald, Wesley||A/1/69 Armor|
|21 Oct 1965||Davis, Michael Edward||C/3/4 Cavalry|
|28 Oct 1965||Nelson, Homer Douglas||HHC/2/27 INF (Wolfhounds)|
More information regarding "Operation Shotgun"