For Vietnam veterans, there is a particular sound from our war that remains with us to this day: the distinctive “wop-wop-wop” of helicopter blades in the distance, coming to get our wounded, to provide aerial gun support, or to get us out of the hells we were in.
This video has been around and is familiar to some, but it is a fantastic expression of our love for those who flew those helicopters. The video is called “God’s Own Lunatics: In the Shadow of the Blade” and is narrated by Joe Gallaway, a newspaper correspondent and columnist who is also a Vietnam veteran. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his actions during the famous Battle of Ia Drang in 1965. He was a grunt, and he expresses the emotional response that was common to all of us who, at one time or another, needed to hear that familiar wop-wop-wop in the distance that announced the arrival of oncoming choppers to the rescue.
Galloway made this video in honor of the Army helicopter pilots of the “Silver Spurs” A Troop, 3/17th Air Cavalry. But we Marines, both grunts and reconners, had our angels in the sky too. For us, it was the pilots of the “Purple Foxes” of the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron, VMM 364, and others. They were part of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. They flew the Boeing Ch-46 Sea Knights, twin-rotor helicopters that transported us out into the field at times. But at other times, they were the ones that came to our rescue.
The sound of them coming in to help us “get out of Dodge” was often preceded by the sound of Bell, UH-1, or Huey helicopters who were our eyes in the sky and our aerial fire support. They would spot for us, and they would lay down suppressing fire so that the Marine CH-47s could touch down and take us aboard. That sound was a promise to us on the ground that we were not alone, that help had arrived.
The grunt experience and the recon experiences were different in scale, but the sound of those helicopter blades meant the same to both. We knew, too, that those pilots and crews on those helicopters were going to do anything necessary to defend us and to get us out of harm’s way. You will hear this in Joe Gallaway’s narrative as he tells of how those pilots would settle those big birds on the ground and stay as long as needed to get our wounded and dead and that they would not leave until they had us all aboard.
They were the bravest men we knew, and we can never thank them enough for their courage, their incredible skills, and their dedication to supply us, defend us, and get us out of harm’s way.
Helicopter pilots braved the anti-aircraft and mortars of the NVA that surrounded us every day during the siege at Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive. They came in to take out our wounded and those killed in action. They often brought supplies, but there was also a daily need to get the wounded out of the kill zone of that base and back to more sophisticated medical help. They would brave the intense enemy fire each time, without hesitation.
Toward the end of the siege at Khe Sanh, the 1st Air Cavalry Division was brought in to end the siege. The skies above Khe Sanh were filled with every conceivable kind of military helicopter, from Flying Cranes bringing in big artillery guns and tanks to CH-53 Jolly Green Giants to Army CH-46s and Huey troop transports and gunships to Cobra gunships and aerial observer helicopters. We had never seen such a collection and would never again.
The helicopter is an iconic presence in the memories of grunts and reconners. We are the ones who look up to the skies whenever we hear a helicopter still today. They meant everything to us. And they sacrificed much to be our “angels in the sky.” The U.S. military lost 5,086 helicopters over the 10 years of the war. 2,202 helicopter pilots died in action along with 2,704 crew members. 40,000 helicopter pilots served during the war.
To all of the helicopter pilots of Vietnam, we offer our deepest thanks and our most sincere respect. It was because of them that our survival rates after being wounded were better than in any war previous to our war in Vietnam. They remain in our hearts forever, and we were and will always be humbled by their courage and dedication to duty. God bless them all.