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Mister Shiny Boots

By John R. Fox
There I wazzzzz.... standing on the Hue/Phu Bai Tarmac, 29 Jan 1968. Back again in Viet Nam after a tour of flying slicks (UH-1's) in Saigon III Corps area 1964-65. Then Instructing at FT Rucker for two years, now a new Chinook, CH-47 pilot, 1st Air Cav Div, A/228 Bn. Just in time for the big event, which could not have started without me, the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive '68.
John R. Fox
John R. Fox
Courtesy Ken Rudine

Several days went by waiting to receive an Orientation ride to acquaint me with the local flying area but the WX began to deteriorate. The City of Phu Bai was under the control of the Marines. Our area was located on the south west side with protection by a Marine Artillery 155 Gun and a Jeep with a quad fifty machine gun. Surely, this would be plenty for our unit of Chinooks. Yep, we had cots in a GP (General Purpose) tent that housed all the pilots except the Company Commander, MAJ Don Yenglin. NO Bunkers!! Who needs them all was quiet and we had the Marines.

Around 2330 hrs the sounds began to change from outgoing Artillery to incoming. We all stepped outside the tent to see what was going on. Then a series of 122mm rockets began to land at the Hue/Phu Bai Airfield. This got our attention but when the Mortars began to strike very close, my nose came very close to the dirt. The Marines opened fire with everything. When the 155 guns would fire because it was so close all the tents would swell up like blimps from the concussion. The next morning we received word that all of South Viet Nam was under attack. We made very good use of issued shovels and bunkers were built quickly. Now the WX was completely zero – zero. We had difficulty navigating to the latrines.

MAJ Yenglin sent for me to come to operations. There was another second tour Instrument pilot, Carl Hess, from B/228 was coming in to fly with me on a special Med-evac mission. Carl was a flight class member and good friend of mine. He is a long tall drink of water from Troup, TX. Putting two Texans together is always dangerous. I was from Houston, TX. The mission was to depart using an ITO (Instrument Take Off) then proceed IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) with the Air Force Phu Bai departure control. Fly towards the coastal city of Quang Tri transferring to Marine approach control that would radar vector us toward the location of FSB Sharon. Sharon had received a severe mortar bombardment for two days and had 24 badly wounded that needed to be Med-evac to Da Nang's China Beach Medical facility.

A Chinook pilot's view of a Vietnamese river 1968.
Note other Chinook in lower left corner.

Photo courtesy Pat Olepat

As we were radar vectored at 5000 ft IFR to a plotted position on the Quang Tri radar scope . We contacted FSB Sharon operations on FM radio. Now comes the tricky part ~ making an IFR descent using their FM radio. Both of us were Instrument Instructors at the Aviation School FT Rucker, AL. The moment of truth had arrived for us to perform either a Tactical Figure 8 approach or a circling descent down thru the clouds with the great possibility of being shot at, as so advised by Sharon Operations. Remember, I have no idea where we are or what the ground formation is like. This is my FIRST flight. My friend, Carl Hess, says “No Sweat”, yeah, right. The Sharon Operations would key their FM radio for 5 seconds with a 5 second pause. Using our Direction Finder the needle would always point to the station. They estimated a ceiling of 50 ft with horizontal visibility 50 meters. There were many wounded and no other way out for them. We had to do this.

Carl flying left seat and I flew right seat with all the instruments. We started our descent circling several times always keeping the Directional Finder needle 45 deg to the left. Operations advised that they could hear our descent and suddenly they saw us as we broke out right over them. Now we could see the landing pad and landed. Yep, we both had sweaty palms. Over the next few days we would do this over again and again on other missions.

Carl went inside operations to receive the manifest and destination briefing. The crew began to convert the Chinook from Troop seating to accommodate the 24 litters. Being the FNG I still was wearing a pressed flight suit with shined boots. I went into the Medical Tent to see what was going to be needed inside the helicopter for the trip. The Medics gave me a briefing that one Medic would make the trip with us to check on IV fluids, etc. As I walked around the wounded on the litters, that were very close to the ground, they would ask if we could make it out. Some were very concerned about their condition and of others. With all of my Texas Bravado I would assure them that we knew exactly what we were doing and would get them safely to China Beach where there were many very pretty round eyed Nurses and cold beer. Some would speak of their home towns and families. They were scared of the war and of flying into this bad WX. Told them that we were both from Texas and this was not our first Rodeo. Time to load up.

After takeoff we contacted Quang Tri Approach Control for radar vectors to the coast line at 3000 ft. Arriving over the coast we requested descent to VFR over the water and continued flight to Da Nang and China Beach where the WX was beautiful passing the High Van Pass Mountains. Refueled at Da Nang's Red Beach for return to Hue/Phu Bai and further missions.

Following many IFR missions and combat support all thru the I Corp area and support of the many battles around Hue Citadel and westward. Flying into Khe Sanh to end the 77 Day Siege of the Marines. By April we were all tired and filled with combat fatigue. The WX was changing from cold rain to just plenty rain. Sometime in the first week of April I received a standby mission at FSB Sharon that had now grown immensely with helicopter revetments, large landing pads and aircraft radio control. Reporting to the new Operations Bunker that had been built underground with large timbers and sand bags for they were still receiving lots of mortar rounds. Stepping down into the Operations/ Mess hall. It was a large room with Operations on one side and the rest had small standup tables to eat a light lunch of soup and sandwich. The relentless rain had completely filled the whole room with 4 inches of thick mud. After checking in with OPS then picking up something to eat I was standing at one of the tables very tired. One of the OPS clerks came over to my table with a mission, I had guessed. He ask if I was a Chinook pilot, confirming that I was. He wanted to know if I had flown a Med Evac mission into FSB Sharon several months before when the WX was so bad. Yes, I had ! He wanted to thank me for he was one of the wounded and he remembered me visiting with all the wounded giving them assurance that they were going to be alright. Then he laughed and said they all had called me “Mister Shiny Boots” wondering if I had just flown in from the States to pick them up.

CH-47 Chinook
CH-47 (Chinook)
1968 photo courtesy Pat Olepat

My turn to laugh and told him yes ~ that it had been my FIRST flight back in Viet Nam and had no idea where I was or where China Beach was located !! But that I had been very proud to help. Then looking down at my boots I told him that they were still very Shiny under 4 inches of mud and would always remain so. He thanked me again for himself as well for the others.

Did not know his name and never saw him again. But my tiredness had left me, then feeling very satisfied in knowing that we had all fought together to get back home to our families. More missions were upcoming with the incursion into the famous A Shau Valley and one more tour to Viet Nam with the 101st ABN DIV in the same I Corp area. We had built many friends and deep emotions in South East Asia.

This is a story also included in the book "We Gotta Get Out of This Place Vol II" which will be out in September 2014. All profits go to the Wounded Warrior Project.

© John R. Fox

They Shoe Horses, Don't They?
Guest column
May 16, 2014

The pilots are the real unsung heroes of the war - countless people were saved by them taking chances they didn't have to take. The Chinooks were also the wreckers of the Cav - nearly everyday you'd see one retrieving a Huey. - Ed.

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