Today is a sad date in U.S. military history. What would become the war in Vietnam began in the late 1950s on a small scale with some advisers incountry to advise the South Vietnamese army (ARVN). It began to heat up in the early 1960s and kept heating up until the mid-1970s when U.S. troops left.

The sad event on this date in 1962 is that the first U.S. helicopter was shot down by Viet Cong (VC) troops. The U.S. chopper was one of 15 transporting ARVN troops to battle near the village of Hong Me in the Mekong Delta.

The first U.S. helicopter unit had arrived in South Vietnam on Dec. 11,1961. The contingent included 33 Vertol H-21C Shawnee helicopters and 400 air and ground crewmen to operate and maintain them. The ill-fated chopper’s mission that day was to airlift the ARVN troops into combat against the VC.

The above information is from the This Day in U.S. Military History calendar. Surprising to me it is not in the 21-page Vietnam War Timeline booklet I bought during the recent visit by the Vietnam traveling wall in Leavenworth.

The calendar did not say what the casualties were, but I suspect all crew members and perhaps all ARVN troops died.

The helicopter was invented, or developed, too late for WW II, and first appeared in combat during the Korean war, used primarily for reconnaissance and medical evacuation. Who does not immediately think of the beginning of each TV episode of “MASH” with soldiers of the 4077th running with determined looks up many steps to the chopper and patients on top of a hill. Hawkeye, of course, rode in a Jeep.

I've never been bitten by the helicopter bug. But in my cavalry squadron in Vietnam, every day we had a “last light” flight around the outside of our rendezvous area, no matter where we were. This was in the “eggbeater” H-13 observation chopper, with armament of only the rifle the observer carried. The single passenger was almost always a lieutenant from the S-3, or operations section.

But one was not always available, and shortly before takeoff the lieutenant pilot would look for a volunteer replacement observer and gunner if necessary. About two weeks before my year was up, he needed a rider, and I said I’d do it for the experience.  

The passenger rode in the left seat, and I’m left-handed. You can’t shoot accurately from the left seat left-handed. So I switched my rifle to my right hand, which would have made me effective enough if I was shooting at a barn door, perhaps. Or perhaps not.

As we got airborne and began zipping over the sand dunes on the shores of the South China Sea, I asked if we were to look for anything in particular. Imagine my shock and surprise when the pilot said “Intelligence reports there may be a .50 caliber quad-barreled machine gun in the area, so look for that.” Oh swell. Four barrels of a .50 machine gun would have blown us from the sky before we could have radioed it in.

For the rest of the seemingly eternal flight, all I could think of were the suspected words of my widow saying “What in the world was he thinking of?” We made it back, no machine gun, or anything else spotted. That was my last flight in a last light, or any other kind, of helicopter ride.

John Reichley is a retired Army officer and Department of the Army civilian employee.