|Jim Miller, Part 1: Combat flying in Vietnam|
|Written by Editor|
|Thursday, 02 June 2011 22:02|
AC Jim Miller in Warrior 26 with the movie actor Charlton Heston, Vietnam 1967.
By JOYELL NEVINS
But the Vietnam War marked the first time in history helicopters – specifically the UH-1 Huey – were used to transport non-wounded troops. Miller served as one of those pilots, taking troops in and out of battle zones. The Hueys were also responsible for bringing supplies. The sound of their whizzing blades became one of the most recognizable noises for those who fought in Vietnam.
“When you heard that whop-whop-whop you knew help was on the way,” said Miller, “There wasn’t anybody in Vietnam that wasn’t impacted by the Huey’s.”
Miller became a pilot because when he received a draft notice, he was lamenting the fact at a buddy’s house – and his friend’s father had an alternate solution.
“He asked me if I’d like to fly. He said, ‘I think you’d like it’,” Miller recalled. The fact that pilots could sleep “in a regular bed instead of a muddy hole” didn’t hurt, either.
Miller enrolled in the Warrant Officer Flight Training Program, and in 1967 was deployed to South Vietnam. In Soc Trang, Miller was assigned to the 336th Assault Helicopter Company. Since the average age in Vietnam was about 19, at 22, Miller was one of the oldest men in his unit. He served in Vietnam for one year, with one week of ‘rest and relaxation’ in Bangkok.
“To go from being shot at every day and being dirty, smelly, nasty, then to go to a place like Bangkok with modern facilities and food - it was like a dream,” said Miller.
Miller worked in a crew of three: himself as aircraft commander, a crew chief and a gunner. Unlike the common work world, an 8 to 5, Monday to Friday shift did not exist.
“We flew around the clock,” said Miller, adding that they were only down out of the air maybe one day a week.
During the day, the Hueys were involved in what was termed ‘ash and trash’ – transporting personnel and resupplying troops on the ground. At night, Miller and his crew would fly firefly missions in conjunction with gunships, where they flew close to the canals looking for san pans (similar to canoes).
He became an expert at falling asleep in fifteen seconds. When they landed to refuel, he would put the helicopter in neutral, shut his eyes, and as soon as the helicopter was gassed up, there was his gunner tapping him on the shoulder that it’s time to go.
“You flew to the point of becoming dangerous,” said Miller, “Then they would send us out to an island just to sleep.”
Being in a constant paradoxical state of adrenaline and exhaustion, he said his body would automatically react to certain stimuli. The base where Miller stayed got mortared frequently, which required the troops to run to the bunker for protection. As an officer, Miller had his own room. There were several times when he would wake up in the bunker and not know how he got there. His body had just reacted.
“My ear knew the difference between mortar rounds and artillery,” he said.
He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for a mission in a mountain in the Mekong Delta, by Cambodia. According to the Distinguished Flying Cross Society, the medal is America’s oldest aviation award, and is given for heroism or achievement for individuals involved in aviation. The Green Berets, an Army Special Forces operation, were dropped in the top of this mountain, with the enemy owning the bottom. All they had were sleeping bags. It was Miller and other crew’s job to keep them supplied with food and ammunition.
Normally, there was one helicopter with supplies, and one gunship escort (gunships carried two M-60s, two machine guns, and two rocket pods). This particular time, Miller was informed he was getting two gunships – and told that he would know why when he got there. When he got to the mountain, Miller discovered the top half was in the clouds. So to be able to see, he had to fly very close to the ground so his skids could brush the top of trees, making the helicopters easy targets for the enemy. The goal was to fly up and pop out where the Green Berets were.
Two passes later, he had completely missed the spot and the gunships were getting antsy. Their aircraft commander wanted to just leave.
“I told him ‘if we don’t make it, we’ve just signed their death warrant – and I’m not doing that’,” Miller said.
The third time worked.
Miller also experienced being shot down through a round in the engine and crash landing. When he got out of the copter and hit the dirt, immediately there was enemy sniper gunfire. But none of the troops who rescued him would take the sniper out.
“They said ‘oh, don’t worry about him. If we kill him, they might replace him with someone who can shoot straight’,” Miller said.
One of the Huey responsibilities was taking the dead and wounded out of battle. However, there’s not a lot of space in the back of a helicopter.
“The dead were like cordwood – they would literally just be piling them up,” recalled Miller, “Once that stench of death gets in your nostrils, you can’t get rid of it.”
Once the dead were taken back to the base, the helicopter still had to be cleaned.
“The blood was so deep. It was a slimy, gooey mess,” said Miller.
Miller did get to carry a very live, very famous, passenger though – Charlton Heston. Although he almost didn’t recognize him because he was distracted by two female American nurses.
“I’m a red blooded male,” he explained to Heston when they were introduced, “I didn’t see you, I saw them.”
Heston carried a book with him. For every military man he interacted with, he wrote down the name, the date, and the location where he saw them. Then he asked them for one person they would like for him to call.
Although Miller chose not to give Heston a name (he thought his family would be more stressed out by one random phone call than just waiting), he had great respect for the man who would do such a thing.