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By Bud Harton

I was living in Lai Khe, South Vietnam and working as a crew chief/door gunner on a Huey helicopter with an Army Assault Helicopter Company. I did this from January, 1966 to September, 1968. In the words of one my pilots, years later, “it was the best we ever were.” . . .

I started out on slicks, the UH-1D which were used as the troop transports. I spent my first six months flying in formations of 5, 10, 20 and sometimes even more helicopters carrying troops into landing zones which resulted in frequently coming under fire. Sometimes, a particularly highly motivated group of Viet Cong would have the landing zone pre-plotted for mortar fire which always resulted in some memorable moments of incredibly intense fear. It only took the sight of what happens to a helicopter when an 82mm mortar explodes alongside while it’s just touching down to learn that what we were doing was really scary.

But it did have its moments and we usually got to take a shower every night.

After six months of risking my life daily ferrying troops, I decided I really wanted to shoot back a lot more and I was allowed to transfer to the armed platoon in exchange for an additional six months in Vietnam. So, after six months in country, I only had eighteen months left in my twelve month tour.

The armed platoon was flying the Huey Charlie model. More agile because of a newer designed rotor system and more powerful because of an improved engine. The platoon had eight aircraft, five called “minis” because they were armed with two XM-134 mini guns mounted outboard of the aircraft and fired by the aircraft commander and two pods of seven each 2.75” rockets with 17 pound warheads which were fired by the pilot in the right seat.

There were two more known as “frogs” because they had an XM5 40mm grenade launcher mounted on the nose and fired by the aircraft commander and 2.75” rocket pods fired by the pilot. The eighth aircraft was called a “Hog” and it fired 48 of the 2.75-inch rockets. Their main function was to escort the slicks into landing zones after first performing prepatory fires, counter-mortar/rocket, and scramble response for troops in contact.

In the rear of all of the aircraft rode the crew chief in the left seat and the gunner in the right seat. Both were armed with M60 machineguns suspended from the ceiling near the litter rack pole by bungee cords.

That was an infinitely more desirable position to be in. Now when someone shot at us, we didn’t have just to take it but could return absolutely devastating fire.

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The right side mini gun and the author on the Undertaker, 1967

The Huey was the absolute workhorse of the Vietnam War. They were used not only by the Army, but also the Navy, Marines and Air Force, too. A total of 7,013 Hueys served in Vietnam from 1963 to 1973 and of that total, 3,305 were destroyed killing 2,177 crewmembers.

That’s not the total number of Hueys that “went down,” though. Far from it. For instance, during my 32 months in Vietnam, I went down a total of nine times. Some from combat damage, but most from mechanical failures. If the pilot was able to land the aircraft in an open area, the aircraft was normally recovered, repaired and returned to service. One of the advantages of rotary wing flight is that a skilled pilot can bring the aircraft to a hover just before impact and greatly reduce or even eliminate any impact damage.

Of course, when there is no open area and the aircraft ‘lands’ at the top of a 150 foot tree in the middle of a mahogany forest or on the side of a mountain, there usually wasn’t any recovery necessary.

One of the most memorable landings was the time our wingman called my aircraft commander on the VHF radio saying,

“CROSSBOW 33! PUT IT DOWN, PETE YOU’RE ON FIRE, THE WHOLE TAIL BOOM IS BURNING!”

But, all this is background to help you understand that I was there when the whole concept of the “BoB” came about.

“BoB” originally stood for Bail-out-Bag and no doubt was aptly named by the zoomies in the fast movers. We, of course, couldn’t bail out of a descending helicopter because there was the chance that you would be chopped to pieces by the main rotor blades. And if they missed, you had an even better chance of meeting Mr. Tail Rotor.

What I learned the very first time I went down was that whatever you had on your body or in your hand was all you were going to have to survive with. All too often, once you hit the ground, you were going to be under fire and the aircraft was the focus point of every enemy soldier that you saw you disappear, so you had to flee. Or, as happened to me on one occasion, the aircraft was already on fire when it hit the ground and carrying that much ordinance and that much JP-4 fuel was a great motivation tool to run quickly. So, I learned that having a bag right alongside my seat or even better, already strapped on my body was really the only option.

Because the Army had apparently not given any thought to this possible situation, we didn’t really have a large selection of suitable equipment bags. Enter the previously innocuous M18a1 Claymore mine carry pouch.

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Why would a helicopter assault unit have a need for a Claymore mine you ask? Well, to cook C rations with the C4 explosive, of course. And to make field-expedient aerial bombs out of the C4, an ammo can, an M26 grenade and whatever improvised fragmentation material we could stuff inside.

But, that’s a story for another time.

The Claymore pouch comes with a very handy shoulder strap and has two separate pockets inside. In mine, I carried extra 9mm Hi Power magazines, some basic first aid stuff, extra packs of cigarettes and lighters, smoke grenades and a couple of aerial flares. And after I finally was able to snatch one, a PRC-10 emergency radio.

After the very first time I went down, I started accumulating stuff to carry with me and then noticed that other folks had the same idea and were already using Claymore pouches.

And that was the very first recorded use of what’s now known as the bug out bag. Not really, of course, but was my first use of one. And today, a hundred pounds heavier, I still have one with me and, other than the cigarettes, it still contains very similar items.

52 Responses to Contest Entry: Bud’s First Gunship And The Origin of the BoB

  1. Outstanding. Welcome home, bro.

    I also did the door gunner routine my last six months of active duty, from air bases in northeast Thailand. You just brought it all back for me in living color again.

  2. Amazing! Thanks for sharing. My Father was a Door-Gunner in Vietnam – Donald Lee Arnold. If I remember correctly his tour ended in late 69. He was shot down 4 times and walked away each time (or I wouldn’t be here). He never talked much about his experiences there, to anyone. So story like this is a nice way to find out more about his experience, so i really appreciate you sharing it. Thanks.

  3. Choppers scare the living crap out of me. Hueys especially. But I don’t discriminate. Sh*thooks and jolly greens included.

    Next time, I’ll walk.

  4. Holy crap. That gave me some chills.
    Glad you lived to share those tales. Especially considering the odds.

    • To be clear, that’s not me or my video. I found that on youtube several years ago and have tried to share it when I can.

      It’s a beautiful tribute. My sister’s first husband was a door gunner in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. He did not talk about it much, but some.

      First time I heard this, it brought tears to my eyes as well. It still does.

      • Tx for the link; I didn’t do that gig nearly as long as Bud and others; my primary job during three deployments was air base defense. But I vividly recall how nerve-wracking the chopper runs were and have nothing but admiration and respect for the pilots, crew chiefs and air rescue guys we supported throughout SEA.

    • I have always had so much respect for our military! My dad was a helicopter mechanic in the Vietnam war. He doesn’t talk about very much this video has opened my eyes a little more. I no our men and women went thought hell for us for that they will get nothing less than respect from my family and I. I did blubber like a baby

    • Dude, I could have done without that video. Scares the shit out of me. Those boys were doing something nobody should ever have to do. No, I have never been under fire. I grew up watching this stuff on the tube every night. I was 9 years old and frightened to be drafted when that war ended. I was lucky. I grew up between wars. Yes, I joined up (Nt’l Guard), a fit of patriotic insanity, I spent 9 years in. I said I was lucky. Never was fired on, never went anywhere. Still that shit frightens me to my core. I salute you. I would buy any one of you a beer. Thank you for your service.

  5. Thanks for the story. My old man was there in 1967-68 at Camp Holloway in the Central Highlands with the 119th AHC (Crocs). I’ll pass your story on to him. Also, Paul Howe is a big fan of Eagle claymore bags for EDC.

  6. As an aside, I want to make sure all of you old bastards know how much our generation of soldiers appreciates you. Especially the Vietnam vets. When we stand tall it’s because we stand on your shoulders.

    • As we may have stood tall on the shoulders of our dads and granddads in the world wars; my dad was WWII and granddad WWI. And many of us served with WWII and Korean War vets, too.

  7. Dan Zimmerman, consider writing more of your experiences in Vietnam. Many of your readers probably served in Vietnam and those of us interested in the use of helicopters in the war, are particularly interested in first hand accounts like this story. GOOD JOB.

  8. Viet Cong would have the landing zone pre-plotted for mortar fire which always resulted in some moments of fear. It took the sight of what happens to a helicopter when an 82mm mortar explodes alongside while it’s just touching down to learn that what we were doing was scary.
    I have heard the same story by many Vietnam Vets and yet this never really gets mentioned by the media, press, authors, and Hollyweird. I know one guy that still had some souvenirs still in him.

  9. Chopper crews were crazy in Vietnam, but we loved them. I hope to never have to ride in a Huey again, but if I do I want some of those vets back with me. Maybe the only thing better than having a Huey around was having Puff, or maybe not.

    • I have one “Huey memory” indelibly burned into me from Air Assault School , and that is being in a side facing web chair and having the pilot pitch over at 500 feet leaving me parallel to and facing the ground for what seemed like 10 minutes of shear terror. After which, jumping out of the son of a bitch at 60 feet or so was a welcomed relief.

    • Back in the 80’s I spent some time with Vietnam Vet’s who stayed with the military after coming home. Trust me, the crazy stayed with them.

      BDub, I had similar experiences but with a parachute instead of a rope.

  10. So it doesn’t mean “Battery-operated Boyfriend”? Boy have I got some news for some ladies I know.

    Thank you for your service, Bud Harton!

  11. The 100 lb. brass balls it takes to be a chopper crew in ‘Nam.

    My Pop was over there then, he supported the chopper guys by being the flying gas station.

    I cannot imagine what it was like to go into a hot LZ…

    He did mention aircraft on the ground attracted mortar fire like flies to sh!t…

  12. Great story! I was in Korea 1952. You guys haven’t lived till you’ve been on a tiny ship with one engine out, and a couple hundred shells busting all around you, and the best you could do was 12/15 knots, trying to get out of there before they hit you again!

  13. Bud, what a memory jog! Crossbows? Lai Khe? You were in the 173rd AHC? I joined that same company as a gunner, then CE, in early January, 1971: The day I arrived in Lai Khe they were packing up to head north, destination unannounced. It turned out to be Dong Ha, by the DMZ, for Op Lam Son 719. I only spent two days in Lai Khe. I missed, therefore, the Malaysia Relief mission and support of Cambodia ops.

  14. Yes “Robin Hood” slicks and “Crossbow” gunships, the 1`73rd Assault Helicopter Company.

    Sorry to report but a good friend, Doug Trump, who was on of the slick aircraft commanders during your tour just passed on a year or so ago. Doug was the AC of the ‘nighthawk’ which flew the nightly counter-mortar mission aircraft over Lai Khe every night.

  15. Having trained in jungles and been in combat, To hell with combining the two! I have nothing but respect for you all. I wish you had seen a better result for your efforts. I think I know the feeling though…

  16. I could have read pages of your story ,bro, keep on writing because you tell a great story and it’s a very good topic. And from a 34 year old, regular old guy who is a loser with a loser life but never had to face war, Thank You very much for your service and the freedom you provided. There are many other regular guys who are grateful as well.

  17. Great story – thanks for sharing. In my 4 years in the (peacetime) USMC infantry, the scariest moments I had were in helicopters. Had an extremely close call in a CH-46 at 29 Plams – nearly collided with another bird in mid-air while flying nap-of-the-earth. Another time watched a helicopter burn like a bonfire, shortly after we disembarked. My unit seemed to spend a lot of time in helicopters, and I hated every minute of it.

  18. Love me some Claymore bags! Acquired a few while serving in the Rangers and Special Forces, harder these days to take home from the range, but years ago it didn’t matter if they all didn’t get turned in after you blew up the mine. Damn useful bags, had one in my rucksack on the jump into Rio Hato back in 89,had my extra first aid stuff, hygiene kit, and miscellaneous odds and ends stuffed into it. Still using one as my travel shower kit whenever I’m out of town.

  19. Awesome story. A veteran owned company, Combat Flip Flops, makes a modern version of the Claymore Bag here in the US too.

  20. Hope i never have to meet mr tail rotor. Sounds like a total a-hole if you ask me. Great story, glad you lived to tel it!!!

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