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The Vietnam War – Dave Harris – Flying missions with the Firebirds

We have been learning about Cottonwood’s Dave Harris, who was raised by his grandma in Southern, California. He dropped out of school at 17 and his grandma signed for him in May 1968 so he could enlist in the Army at 17.

He completed basic training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) before the Army deployed him to Vietnam and assigned him to the 71st Aviation Company in Chu Lai. He talked himself into duty as a Huey helicopter door gunner and flew Hueys for his first year.

As Dave approached one-year in Vietnam as a Huey door gunner, the Army offered him the option to finish his enlistment in the U.S. or extend in Vietnam.

“They asked me if I wanted to go home because I was 18 years old. I stayed, so my tour was 18 months. I would have had six months left in the service if I (left Vietnam) at 12 months and there was no way I could have done that. They would have thrown me in prison because I already had a bad attitude.”

Dave’s worst day in Vietnam was during a troop lift into a hot LZ (Landing Zone under enemy fire) He suffered a gunshot injury and was hospitalized in Danang before he reported back to his company. His flight status changed as soon as he reported back to his unit.

“I flew Hueys until I got shot and then the rest of my time I flew gunships. One of the “Firebird” guys came up when I went back to the company; handed me a “Firebird” badge and said, “You’re in the ‘Firebirds’ now.” (The Firebirds platoon flew Hueys modified into helicopter gunships) Our wing (partner) ship was a mini-gun ship. It had four mini-guns and 17 rockets. We carried 32 rockets and a 40mm (grenade launcher) in front. They called that a “hog ship.”

Dave’s reassignment within the 71st Aviation Company was not the only change after he returned from hospitalization.

“I felt fear after I got shot. It was fifteen days after that, when I went back to the company and my first flight. I broke out in a sweat. I was hanging on that 60. If anything had moved, I would have nailed it. After I got shot I told myself not to lean out so far. It was like your bravery was taken away. It could happen again.”

Dave explained the Firebirds’ mission was to provide aerial rocket and gunfire support for ground troops. But they flew other missions as well.

“With gunships, you were on call 24/7. If they needed a medevac to go into an area, they needed protection. The only time we went out at night on the gunships was either to pull wounded out and medevac them or guard that medevac chopper going in and coming out. I also went on a couple sniffer missions. They put this machine on the front that actually picked up ammonia when you take a pee. (It also detected campfire smoke.) We’d go in some areas and that thing would be on 100%. So, they knew there was a troop concentration down there. They’d send a little Loach (small helicopter) in there to draw fire. Then they’d tell the Firebirds and we’d go in and (fire up) the area.”

Flying with the Firebirds continued to be hazardous business. Dave shared an example of being shot down on a Firebird mission.

“We got shot down and landed hard. Your body takes over. The adrenaline is so high. One pilot was hit in the head. He was gone. The other one was hit close to the neck, but it must have hit (an artery) because it was spraying like a hose. I was trying to put pressure on it, but he conked out. In the meantime, we were taking fire from a tree line. There was dirt flying all over the place and you could hear bullets hitting the ship. I told the crew chief, ‘Grab the guns! Let’s get out of here!’ Without thinking I picked up my 60 and I had my AK (Russian-made assault rifle) on my back with all my clips. The Hero Box (machine gun ammo container) took two to lift into the aircraft. I picked up that Hero Box on my other side and ran for the tree line. We got to the tree line and rounds were hitting the dirt and trees. My crew chief started laughing. I said, ‘Snap out of it! What are you laughing at?’ He said, ‘You carried that box all by yourself!’ When somebody tells you that you can do strange things on adrenaline, it’s true.”

Writing letters was about the only way for troops to keep in touch with family. A troop who did not write home could cause concern. Dave learned that the hard way.

“I got in trouble for that. The captain had me up in front of his desk as the Red Cross had come in there, saying that I wasn’t writing letters home. But what do you say? ‘I’m here in a war zone, getting shot at?’ Stuff like that would make it worse. I wasn’t much of a letter writer. I got chewed out and had to write a letter sitting in his office. (Dave laughed) I told him, ‘I could go back to the hootch and write a letter.’ He said, ‘No. You write it here. I’ll mail it for you.’ (Dave laughed) I said, ‘OK, sir!'”

You can reach me at prairieviewpressllc@gmail.com with any comments about or story suggestions for “Prairie Lives.”

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