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From the Stars and Stripes archives

The 'Wild Bunch' — It's a punishing life

The ground crew loads ammunition onto a Cobra helicopter at Tay Ninh, South Vietnam, in 1971.

KEN SCHULTZ/STARS AND STRIPES

By KEN SCHULTZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 13, 1971

TAY NINH, Vietnam — They refer to themselves as Army misfits — former helicopter crew chiefs and door gunners grounded for disciplinary and other reasons and now relegated to arming helicopter gunships with ammunition.

Nine soldiers work on a powder keg, loading the choppers they once flew in as crewmen and keeping a watchful eye for incoming mortar rounds which could turn the airfield into a torch of exploding rockets, 40mm and M60 machine gun rounds.

Stepped-up Communist activity near the Cambodian border in northern Tay Ninh Province has made the men acutely aware of this danger.

The men pointed to several spots along the runway hit by mortar rounds the previous morning.

"If a mortar hits this place, there's going to be fireworks," one soldier said.

"The thought really scares you," said a man with less than 40 days left in Vietnam.

The game plan during a mortar attack calls for the loaders "to run for the lowest place we can find, like that pond over there, so the shrapnel will go over us," a shirtless soldier said.

"We don't want to stay here, that's for sure," said another man.

The soldiers who keep the choppers supplied with firepower live near the airfield where they work, isolated from other U.S. troops.

But they shrug and carry on, not seeming to mind the relative obscurity, isolation and bad-boy reputation (one officer referred to them as the "Wild Bunch").

"This is punishment, but at least nobody messes with you here," a soldier said.

"At night you can do what you want — watch the mortars come in, the flares go off. It's a whole light show," he added.

Regardless of the circumstances, the men take their job seriously and work frantically to load the Cobra gunships as they begin to stack up along the runway, waiting to rearm and return for another fire mission.

One soldier spoke philosophically of his job: "You just take the risk, you have to come out here anyway."
 

The ground crew loads ammunition onto a Cobra helicopter at Tay Ninh, South Vietnam, in 1971.
KEN SCHULTZ/STARS AND STRIPES

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