The Doors Were Open
This Helicopter Day we want to pay tribute to those who kept the rotorcraft turning and burning, mainly the door gunners, ordinance men/women, and flight surgeons/air medics. From the very beginning of the Vietnam War, it was concluded that this would be a much different war. Enter the UH-1 Iroquois, affectionately known forever as the "Huey". It would have been impossible to fight that war without it. One reason was the door gunner.
Depending on the sources, it is a general estimation that between 1966 and 1971, one Army helicopter was lost for every 7.9 sorties totaling 564 pilots, 1,155 crewmen. Helicopter crews accounted for 10% of all combat deaths. More Huey aircraft were downed in Vietnam than any other type of aircraft, due to nature of their slower moving operations.
The enemy fought differently. The days of conventional open battlefield WWII style warfare and tactics were gone. This time around, the enemy would be elusive, sinister, deceitful, and seemingly hidden in plain sight. As some Vietnam Veterans would later recollect, it was if they were firing at a muzzle flash. Given the unforgiving triple canopy vegetation terrain of Southeast Asia, the jungles of Vietnam were as formidable as the Vietnamese enemy themselves. Initially the Vietnamese enemy troops were afraid of the Huey's. But as the war progressed, they became increasingly confident and aggressive in shooting down the aircraft. Both troop insertion and extraction, were deadly and dangerous.
The door gunner had an undaunting role, unlike any other in previous wars. The helicopter had already proved itself invaluable in this new type of war. For an enemy that was often too hard to be seen, American troops needed maximum firepower and effectiveness. This called for the door gunner to be the eyes behind the pilots. Many times, it wasn't so much the initial objective to kill enemy troops but to lay down suppressive fire during troop insertions and extractions. Armed helicopters could only fire forward. The door gunners allowed protection from opposing flanks where the aircraft were most vulnerable to enemy fire. Hanging out of the sides of the helicopters made the door gunners an easy target, and a priority target at that. Enemy troops put bounties on door gunners due to their ability to strafe enemy positions with high volumes of fire.
When proponents began to heavily arm helicopters with rockets and forward firing machine guns, the armed helicopter was highly effective. However, with the implementation of the door gunner, it seemingly made battle against the hidden enemy, up close and very personal. It took a brave fool to fly a helicopter into a hot LZ in Vietnam. It took an even bigger fool from hell to hang outside of a helicopter fully exposed and take the fight to the enemy. No better example of that would be those mounted in the OH-6 Cayuse "Little Bird", as chronicled in the classic book, "Low Level Hell".
Written by Hugh Mills Jr., it details the exploits and dangerous duties of the aero scouts of the 1st Infantry Division. Nicknamed the "Outcasts", they flew in "pink teams" over the skies of Vietnam from the Cambodian border to the Iron Triangle. The enemy was a master of camouflage by using the thick triple canopy jungle as a means of invisibility, as well as the ability to blend in with the local population. Rarely did the NVA or VC ever stand and fight in a pitched battle. They frequently used hit and run tactics where they would ambush or conduct a frontal assault, then minutes later seemingly disappear into the thick jungle or as later discovered beneath the ground in a vast network of underground tunnels. The only way to deal with the enemy effectively was that you had to get up close and personal and hit him.
It was often asked, "How do you find the cavalry? Easy, just follow the burning Loaches." Operating in "pink teams", they were tasked with luring the enemy into the open. The Pink Team concept was used during the Vietnam War combining the Light Observation Helicopter or "Loach" small scout helicopters with the AH-1 Cobra gunship. The Loach was designated "white" with the Cobra as "red". When mixed together, the resulting color is white. The concept was that the Loach would fly low and in tight circles to draw enemy fire. Then when the enemy was spotted the Cobra would then fire on the enemy position.
In short, the loach was used as a type of bait since American helicopters were a high value target by the enemy Vietnamese. The strategy and concept was that the Loach would fly low and in tight circles to draw enemy fire. Then when the enemy was spotted the Cobra would fire on the enemy position. It took the most gutsiest of pilots and crews to flight these types of near certain death missions. Often times, these types of bold engagements pitted the door gunner against the enemy so up close and personal that they often locked eye ball to eye ball to where they often saw the whites of each other's eyes. In many combat engagements it was a matter of who was quicker on the draw.
The Outcasts diorama display can be seen at the Birmingham Southern Museum Of Flight. In this diorama, visitors can view an actual engagement between the door gunner of the Outcasts and an enemy Viet Cong. The diorama showcases a Cobra helicopter that has been peppered with small arms fire from an enemy VC. The Cobra helicopter makes an emergency landing due to the sporadic gunfire that it has taken. The Cobra pilot exited in order to access the damage and determine if it is minimal enough to resume flight and return back to base. Suddenly a VC sniper emerges just a few feet aft of the helicopter. The door gunner who is circling just a few feet above the injured Cobra has the enemy VC clearly in his sight. The Cobra pilot is however armed with an holstered .38 revolver pistol but has his line of sight obscured. At this point, with adrenaline rushing as well as the sights and sounds of war adding to the fray, it becomes a rushed issue of kill or be killed. The door gunner, although armed with superior firepower over the VC's AK-47, he is still vulnerably close and in plain sight of the enemy combatant.
The door gunner managed to kill the Viet Cong soldier. An actual recording of the ordeal can be heard at the exhibit. To fire upon the enemy at high altitudes was one thing. But to hover, slow and low at a few dozen feet away from your target, void of any cover required a certain type of personality. It demanded one who was able to throw caution to the wind, often literally. In Vietnam, the door gunner was perhaps the most vulnerable due to his extreme exposure to the enemy.
Members of pink teams or "hunter killer" teams were of a certain breed. Normally viewed as the less desired in society, expendable with very little to lose. Usually they were men who were looked down upon. Men like Ron Vlach knew the feeling first hand. Vlach served with the 54th General Command as a door gunner on a Huey. Upon his arrival in Vietnam, the door gunners in his unit had a life expectancy of 13-30 days. You somewhat knew that death was certain. Vlach was once in a village on Dalat Mountain that housed an orphanage. At 4:00 AM the village was over ran by the NVA. Vlach grabbed a couple of pistols and a rifle and took cover. At day break, Vlach saw an NVA soldier emerging from the orphanage wearing an American flag. The year was 1969 and he still has that flag, with two bullet holes in it. He was critically injured in the firefight but still managed to fight on to secure the village.
Vlach was shot down twice in three days. The second time, he suffered a broken neck, collar bones, back and left arm, which left him in the hospital for a little over a month. Citing that he was merely doing his job, he initially rejected the two Purple Heart Awards. He was re-awarded them forty years later in 2009 at a private ceremony.
Cut from the same cloth as Vlach, and thousands of others, Specialist Four, John A. Vargas met death head on and won. On May 19, 1967 he distinguished himself by heroic action. While serving as a door gunner on the lead aircraft of two armed helicopters, he went into the valley of death during a screening mission for a ground force in the Ho Bo Woods. While on a low level reconnaissance, the lead gunship came under intense ground fire and sustained multiple hits. Specialist-four Vargas was seriously wounded in the right arm and shoulder. Although he was painfully wounded, Specialist-four Vargas regained his gunner's seat and marked the enemy position with a smoke grenade.
Despite the seriousness of his wounds, he managed to regain his position and continued firing from his seat until he collapsed. Due to his courage and conviction under fire, the helicopter was able to escape further enemy fire. Because the enemy target had been successfully marked, another helicopter gunship was able to attack the enemy position. For his heroic actions in the face of certain death, he was awarded The Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.
Flying such men into the thick of battle were helicopter pilots such as Hugh Mills Jr. These men had the undaunting task of risking life and limb in the face of seemingly certain death. Most were volunteers who gave so much, but asked for so little. They were expected to be as innovative as they were brave, against an enemy that refused to give in. Hugh Mills Jr was shot down 16 times and wounded three times, earning numerous decorations for valor, including three Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, four Distinguished Flying Crosses and three Bronze Stars, one for valor in ground combat. The government of Vietnam awarded him the Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star and Palm, the Vietnamese Honor Medal First Class and the Civic Action Honor Medal First Class.
When engaging in armed combat with an enemy that could literally emerge from anywhere and suddenly disappear, the American soldier needed to put massive rounds down range. The preferred weapon of choice was the M-60 machine gun, known affectionately as "the pig". The M-60 that was used by helicopter door gunners was significantly modified from those used by basic infantrymen.
Initially, the M-60 was mounted on swiveling mounts in order to steady the weapon. As the war progressed, many door gunners used bungee cords for better maneuverability of the M-60 thus allowing for increased firing angles. The M23 system provided a pintle mount at both main cabin doors for the M-60D 7.62×51mm machine gun, with the weapon feeding from either a standard ammunition box or a larger purpose built box connected to the mount. The M23 was specifically designed for long fuselage UH-1s (UH-1D/H/N). Often times, the door gunners would stand on the skids to get better aim to put rounds on target. With the aircraft in constant motion and travelling at high rates of speed, often times drawing fire, the door gunner needed agility and flexibility to fire at many angles. Mounted on both sides of the Huey, the door gunners only added to the ferociousness of the helicopter as a gunship platform.
The door gunner was often like the rogue family member or distant cousin that you would bring to a fight if you got in over your head. It didn't matter if you were his first, second, or third cousin, as long as he knew that you were related somehow he was willing to fight and was rather good at it. Such were men like Private Gary Hallman. Hallman arrived in Vietnam in December of 1967 and was transferred to the 281st Assault Helicopter Company, known as the Intruders where he served as a door gunner. In an interview with the Redstone Rocket he stated that, “I was a door gunner. I loved my job. I was young, didn’t care. I wanted to see some action. If the men we put into an LZ got in trouble, we’d go into the A Shau Valley with 15 helicopters and come out with six or seven. Had three or four gunships and one got blown up in the sky." To the average infantryman on the ground, it was safer in the sky. However, men like Hallman knew otherwise. No one was safe in Vietnam.
Just as with Hallman, Donald Albright who served with famed 1st Air Cavalry, felt the sting of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Going into a hot LZ against a well hidden enemy proved difficult. All he could do was fire in the direction of the rockets fired from the Huey. He saw the outgoing tracers of his M-60. But he also saw the green tracers of the inbound rounds of the Vietnamese enemy as they attempted to shoot down his helicopter. In a 2019 interview with the Tribune-Star, he recalled the hostile combat during the 1968 Tet Offensive. “We used red tracers when we shot, but the Viet Cong used green tracers, so you could see them moving around. If they started coming toward us, the pilot would swing out” away from the path of the incoming fire. In 1968, we lost a lot of helicopters and door gunners”, he said.
The enemy knew the importance of the helicopters and their ability to insert troop reinforcements, ammunition and other key supplies, and rain down deadly effective fire. The objective was to destroy the US helicopters. On December 7, 1968, enemy forces attempted to destroy all helicopters and neutralize the base which was home to Albright and his crew members near the Black Virgin Mountain in the Tây Ninh Province of Vietnam. During the ambush, he was severely wounded by enemy rockets meant for the helicopters. The base was not over ran. The shrapnel was finally removed in 1970, in which he kept in a bottle.
The Vietnam War has long since dogged the minds of those who served in that war and those who lived through that era. After a couple of decades after the ending of the Vietnam War, Hollywood began to address the Vietnam Veteran, perhaps in an attempt humanize the veterans of that war. Movies such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Rambo, Missing In Action, and television series such Tour Of Duty were introduced. In was in these motion pictures that the American viewer began to see the narrative of those who fought. For many, the stereotypical Vietnam Veteran was that of a "shell shocked" pan handling homeless alcoholic drug addicted drifter. This stereotype was the foundation of the cinematic representation of Sylvester Stallone's Rambo character.
The dramatic ending of the first instalment of the Rambo: First Blood franchise gave viewers for the first time an understanding of what the Vietnam veteran experienced both during and post war. In the dialogue, which was basically a PTSD driven meltdown based on Rambo feeling as if the world turned against him and his fellow brothers in arms, he actually says that, "In Vietnam, I could fly a helicopter gunship, drive a tank, in charge of millions of dollars worth of equipment. But here I can't keep a job parking cars !Sometimes I wake up and I don't know where I am " Motion pictures such as Platoon showed how a veteran ended up as Rambo.
Apocalypse Now was the first movie to show the power of the Air Calvary and the armed Huey gunship and the Light Observation Helicopter. However, it was in Platoon that we see the dire necessity of the door gunner in the ill fated unsuccessful attempt to extract Sergeant Elias. But the door gunner as an intriguing character all to himself was first portrayed in the classic film Full Metal Jacket.
What made this film unique was that it chronicles the entry of recruits through Marine Corps Boot Camp to an epic cat and mouse mission during the Battle of Hue. True to the nickname, "Uncle Sam's Misguided Children", we see a motley crew of diverse Marines. Of course the late icon R. Lee Ermey will forever be the face of the ultimate drill instructor of all time, but Tim Colceri as the dark humored and sadistic door gunner is immortalized as well. We see an embittered door gunner caught in the clutches of the "fog of war". In Vietnam that was easy as you never knew friend from foe, who the enemy really was. Therefore, survival mode kicks in and everyone is the enemy. When asked by Joker, "How do you kill women and children?" his hell humored response is what solidified his character as a solid standout in the film. "Easy. You just don't lead them as much. Ain't war hell ?!" His unsympathetic laugh only cements his demented outlook on the war. His line of reasoning was simple. "Anyone who runs is a VC (Viet Cong). Anyone who stands still is a well disciplined VC." For him, the shooting of civilians without emotion was simple as the mere squeezing of the trigger, which explains his certified, "157 dead gooks killed....All of them certified". It is very interesting and creative how the director was able to use the door gunner to show how the horrors of combat often pushes ordinary citizens to a point of no return.
The legacy and relevance of the door gunner still lives on in the modern day door gunner, most recently in the Global War On Terrorism. The role still remains the same. to fire and maintain manually directed armament to provide cover to ground operations as well as to defend rotorcraft from ground threats. Since the days of the Vietnam War, with the proliferation of small arms and surface to air munitions, helicopters are just as vulnerable today, if not more than they were nearly 60 years ago in Southeast Asia. This was first made evident in what became known as "Blackhawk Down", or The Battle of Mogadishu.
Drawing from those capabilities, lesser equipped and traditional militaries sought a new form of fighting - asymmetrical warfare. As opposed to the jungles of Vietnam, helicopters now were tasked with operations over densely populated urban areas in the Middle East and mountains of Afghanistan. This made helicopters very susceptible to the Iraqi insurgents and Taliban operatives. The door gunners would have to not only increase their caliber and rate of fire, but lethality as well. The M-60 was the early standard issue for the helicopter door gunner decades ago. For the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the M-60 would eventually be replaced by a host of more modern machine guns suited for the tasks at hand. Most noted and lethal is the FN M3M - (GAU-21).
The FN M3M (GAU-21) is a .50 caliber (12.7x99mm) single barrel rapid-fire machine gun suitable for rotary-wing aircraft applications providing defensive firepower ranging out to nearly 2000 meters. The FN M3 was designated by the U.S. Navy as the GAU-21 in 2004. The U.S. Department of Defense has authorized the use of the GAU-21 for all branches of service, and it is currently in operation on multiple rotary-wing platforms of the US Navy, US Marine Corps, and the US Air Force. An evolution of the M3 .50-caliber heavy machine gun, it produces a blistering 1,100 rounds per minute cyclic rate of fire through the use of open-bolt operation and a dual recoil buffer system.
Operating independent of either electrical or hydraulic power sources, the FN M3M/GAU-21’s unique soft mount system enhances weapon accuracy and minimizes the firing vibration transmitted to the airframe. FN Herstal has been awarded a sole-source U.S. Navy contract to produce the FN M3M .50-caliber machine guns under the Gun, Aircraft, Unit-21 (GAU-21) designation for Navy and Marine Corps rotary-wing assault aircraft.
The door gunner has consistently proven himself invaluable throughout the wars. During Vietnam when the US had to adapt to a much different type of war, the door gunner adjusted and performed his duties to the perfected letter. Now, in the 21st century, the door gunner still is willing to undergo the most rigorous mental and physical training to become skilled professionals in the thick of battle when it matters the most. This daring professionalism was demonstrated by the men of Task Force Falcon whose motto was "Ruthlessly Pursue The Enemy". Currently, door gunners in US Navy and Marine helicopter units are assisting in patrolling the Horn of Africa to prevent pirating and the confiscation of maritime merchant vessels. Air Force door gunners are called Special Mission Aviators (AFSC 1A9X1). Flying on HH-60G Pavehawks, CV-22 Ospreys and UH-1N Huey's, they are tasked with manning the guns, and they are responsible for weight and balance, take-off and landing data, preflight, radios, defensive systems, scanning, hoisting, deploying ropes and must be proficient in NVG operations.
Often overlooked due to there often non-combative roles, door gunners in the Helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) are in the fight as well. The HITRON is the nation’s first and most successful law enforcement unit of its kind. True to its motto, "Force from Above", the HITRON door gunners are armed with sniper rifles to disable suspect vessels. In March of 2017, HITRON marked its 500th drug interdiction. With this historic benchmark, the squadron has successfully interdicted 500 vessels transporting approximately 465 tons of cocaine and 30 tons of marijuana with a total wholesale value of more than $16.7 billion.
Another milestone was reached in 2017 when Corporal Alexandra Roy became the first female door gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force onboard the CH-146 Griffon helicopter with the 430 Tactical Helicopter Squadron. Sergeant Brigitte O'Driscoll became the Canadian Armed Forces' first female Master Door Gunner during the Basic Tactical Aviation Course conducted by 438 Tactical Helicopter Squadron at Canadian Forces Base Valcartier in September 2020. In 2003, Airman 1st Class Vanessa Dobos became the first female aerial gunner in the U.S. Air Force. This position was previously closed to women. She trained with the 58th Training Squadron at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico and she served with distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ten years later in 2013, Airman 1st Class Natasha Libby became a door gunner with the the 66th Rescue Squadron.
In less than 60 years, the position and role of door gunner went from a bold and daring new concept and game changer, to consistently evolving to meet the ever changing needs of the modern day battlefield. In that time span, the technologies have changed, weaponry and munitions have changed, the depth of the door gunner role has changed, and gender participation has changed as well. However, the objective still remains the same. Over hostile skies, when faced with the enemy threat, the door gunner has always been at the ready, when the doors were open.