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Vietnam—The Seed

By CW4 Robert E. Howard (Ret.) / October 31, 1993: This is an edited version of an effort which appeared in the October 31, 1993 issue of ARMY AVITIION magazine.  The author spent 21 years on active duty, in particular, in the field of Aviation.  He retired in 1975 as a CW4 Aircraft Maintenance Technician, on his way to a management position with Bell Helicopter International in Iran.  Following this, he worked as an Aviation Logistics Management Specialist in the Combat Developments Directorate at the Aviation Logistics School at Fort Eustis, Virginia.  In 1988, he assumed the position of the Directorate’s Deputy Director. . . .  Mark Albertson, editor.

Inside of a UH-60 Black Hawk equipped for Medical Evacuations. / Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class, Kenneth W. Robinson

“Two decades ago, the smoke began to float away from the skies over South Vietnam.  The ‘helicopter war’ was over.  Thousands of U.S. Army Aviation pilots and maintainers crammed into commercial charters and C-141s and exited the smoldering country.  At the same time, scores of Hueys—those that could not be shipped—were destroyed or pushed off vessels into the sea.  Some soldiers rejoiced; some were mad.

“I was one of the mad ones.  I had returned to the States a few years earlier from duty with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, where I rarely had a moment without the sound of rotor blades somewhere within earshot.  Watching those wonderful machines splash into the sea—a sight repeatedly emblazoned across the front pages and TV screens by an almost gleeful media—was like watching one’s own house burn down.  The symbolic implication that these machines could not ‘win’ the war, and their humiliating public demise really frosted me. . . “[1]
         

“. . . The work of pre-Vietnam Army Aviation pioneers—the Henry Wanns, Bob Williams, . . . of the business—are carved in granite. 

“They carried Aviation from the World War II Grasshopper days into the Vietnam conflict, and many continue to make contributions today.  They handled all the Army Aviation ‘firsts,’ taking a lot of chances and smoothing out a lot of bumps along the way.  Those guys cultivated Army Aviation; Vietnam brought in the crop.

“The story of helicopters in Vietnam is legend now.  Assault and attack, troop movement, MEDEVAC, weapon system recovery, resupply, scout, recon—they did it all.  War planners included some facet of helicopter involvement in virtually every Operational Plan put together during the war.  The tactical advantages of a weapon system that could move straight up and down and zigzag across any type of terrain in a hurry were not lost on our battlefield leaders.  Not so readily recognized, at least outside the Aviation family, was the value of the human element:  the Aviation Soldier.n my own little piece of that helicopter war, I had a good view of what the Aviation Soldier was made of.  I remember the night the field maintenance company I was in took a bad mortar attack at base camp; high casualties, lots of helicopter and work area damage, and just about no sleep all night.  By first light, every single able bodied person was on the flight line either putting work areas back together or crawling over the damaged helicopters like flies on honey.  By the end of the next day, with the help of volunteer Aviation soldiers brought in from the Corpus Christi Bay floating maintenance ship, we were back to normal operations.”

The steed of Air cavalry during the Vietnam conflict, the Bell UH-1 Huey.

“The importance of Army Aviation achievements in Vietnam was not taken lightly by post-war analysts.  The substance of our experiences did not disappear with those ill-fated left over helicopters’ that were unceremoniously thrown into the sea.  Rather, in the years to come, Vietnam experiences were to serve as the foundation for the development of an Aviation warfighting capability beyond the expectations of even the most optimistic planners.

“Vietnam was in fact the seed for many ‘new’ things going on in Army Aviation today.  The current shift from linear to nonlinear operations in warfighting doctrinal rewrites, for example, does not break new ground.  Vietnam was nonlinear.  Over there, helicopters winged out in all directions to fight the enemy; there were none of the ‘front lines’ associated with linear fighting doctrine.  If war planners (Aviation and otherwise) are looking to transition our way of thinking into nonlinear stuff, they might want to dust off the Vietnam archives.”

“On the support side, a lot of today’s ‘new’ ideas are actually offshoots of the way we did things informally (certainly not illegally) as a matter of course or on a lesser scale in Vietnam.  Take, for instance, the Battle Damage Assessment and Repair (BDAR) initiative, now an officially blessed ‘innovative’ aircraft maintenance concept.  The BDAR Program allows forward maintenance teams to make temporary repairs in the field until the tactical situation allows the application of permanent fixes, which merely formalizes the way we routinely kept things moving in the jungles of Vietnam.  The procedures just weren’t documented.”

“Nor can the forces in the Persian Gulf War chalk up a first for using contractors to help pull maintenance in a combat zone.  Aviation units throughout Vietnam had cells of contractor technicians working alongside green suiters, and a magnificent bunch they were.  Contract support wasn’t brought in to the same extent as in the Gulf, but then again, our military repairmen authorizations in Vietnam were less constrained by manpower ceilings.

“The intent here is not to suggest that Vietnam was the end-all to new ideas in Army Aviation.  The intent is to credit the Vietnam experience with moving Army Aviation into a big, big spotlight; it gave us original visibility and impetus needed to develop Army Aviation into the powerful force it is today.  The millions of flying hours racked up over there while performing virtually every type of combat function imaginable represent the most intense, protracted use of organic aircraft in Army history.  Not all, but many of the things we did to meet the needs of the moment continue to serve as the genesis for current Army Aviation development programs.”

“Certainly, our excursions into places like Grenada and Panama and Southwest Asia have furthered our education in the air power business, as have our combat development think tanks.  Further, phenomenal jumps in technology since the Vietnam era, particularly in the fields of electronics and computerization, have contributed strongly to Army Aviation’s growth.  Helicopter development has embraced a concerted effort to keep up with the state-of-the-art in those disciplines so that firepower can now be dished out from the air in tremendous volume, with minimal exposure of American soldiers to the enemy.  That is, cold equipment, rather than warm bodies, now presides over the forward action areas.  This situation is a vast improvement over the Vietnam environment and has been a key factor in the low number of friendly casualties in recent encounters with the bad guys—and Army Aviation has led the way.”[2]

“At a time of intense competition for budget dollars, the ground war in Iraq, short-lived as it was, did much to bolster the status of Army Aviation in the eyes of top leadership, and in the eyes of the world.  The worst salvos we took during that conflict were from our own media, who again tried to discredit the performance of the Apache in combat.  They have a habit of doing that.

“We previously got hammered with some bad press during Operation:  JUST CAUSE in Panama because our Aviation soldiers ‘used $10 hair dryers to keep the humidity from grounding $16 million helicopters.’  I’ve always thought we could have fielded that one better.  To me, rather than letting media get away with mocking the situation, we should have held it up as an example of the ingenuity of the Army Aviation soldier, which it was.  Instead we said we’d fix the problem, in essence by developing a big, expensive piece of dehumidification equipment.  As far as I’m concerned, we should have gone out and bought a few thousand hair dryers.

“The incident showed that, right along with the technological growth of our flying machines since Vietnam’s Hueys and Cobras, the Army Aviation soldier has grown.  The demographics may be different.  We now access females into the Aviation family, and the majority of soldiers are heads of families rather than BOQ or barracks commandos.  Education levels have shot up, and soldiers now know everything in the world about computers.  All that notwithstanding, the inner stuff of the Aviation Soldier—male or female; officer, warrant officer or enlisted; aviator, maintainer, or commander—remains the same.  If here’s no time to relax on Thanksgiving Day; if it takes a hair dryer to get the job done, they use a hair dryer to get the job done.  That was the Aviation Soldier of Vietnam, and that is the Aviation Soldier of today.”

Endnotes

  1. The “machines” referred to by CW4 Robert E. Howard, the UH-1 Huey, were integral parts of a concept that worked, Airmobility.  But the domestic political will to prosecute the war became noticeably deficient.  Carl von Clausewitz observed:  Accordingly, War can never be separated from political intercourse, and if, in the consideration of the matter, this is done in any way, all the threads of the different relations are, to a certain extent, broken, and we have before us a senseless thing without an object.  See page 402, “War as an Instrument of Policy,” On War, by Carl von Clausewitz. With the North Vietnamese, such was not the case.  Levee en Masse, or conscripting the entire population and economy for war, was implemented in 1966 and 1967, which would lead to TET in 1968.  What industry the North Vietnamese had was dispersed.  Men were impressed for military service, leaving women to take up the slack in production, farming, manning anti-aircraft defenses. . .   An example of political intercourse with one objective . . . win the war.  A factor noticeably absent Stateside.It seems, then, that Washington grasped the tactical lessons of Ia Drang in the fall of 1965; but, it was Hanoi, having been tactically defeated on the battlefield, who better appreciated the political-societal-strategic lessons.
  2. CW4 Howard’s observation, astute as it is, pertaining to the advances in warfighting technology which has saved many American lives,  does though beg the question:  How much reliance on technology begins to inculcate in the user the adverse desire to risk lives for important military objectives?  Does the user lose that perspective that there have been and will be again, the dilemma . . . that the objective is worth risking everything for. . .   A significant factor here is knowing your enemy.  An example from the Russo-Afghan War, 1979-1989 rams the point home:  When asked what made him (Mujahideen) successful, Commander Beloch said, “We intended to fight to the last man and they didn’t.”  See page 1, “Primer on Russian Afghan War, 1979-1989, Lessons Learned,” By Colonel David Shunk, USAF.  In addition to which,  when viewing today’s Jihadis, such seems to be the case.

Bibliography

  • Shunk, Colonel  David, USAF, “Primer on Russian Afghan War, 1979-1989, Lessons Learned,” dnipogo.org/wp-conten/uploads/2009/01/primer_on_afghan_war.pdf, December 26, 2008.
  • Vietnam—The Seed,” by CW4 Robert E. Howard (Ret.), Army Aviation, Vol. 42, No. 10, Army Aviation Publications, Inc., Westport, Ct., October 31, 1993.
  • Von Clausewitz, Carl, On War, Penguin Books, Ltd., Middlesex, England, 1968.  Originally published, Vom Kriege, (On War), 1832.

 

  • "M-4 Shermans disembark from an LST during the invasion of Anzio, January 1944.  Note the spare treads on the face armor."
  • Photo is of Soviet soldiers aboard a     in Kabul, during Soviet-Afghan War.  Photo is in public domain, Wikipedia Commons.  Caption:  Soviet soldiers aboard a BMD, an air-portable APC."