By Daily Mail Reporter.
As the U.S. comes to grips with the deadliest loss of American lives since the war in Afghanistan began, more has been revealed about the helicopter crash that claimed 38 lives.
The Chinook chopper was on a mission to back up U.S. Army Rangers, who had come under fire by Afghan insurgents in the area, military official said.
The team had completed their mission of subduing the attackers, and were departing in the helicopter when it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
The other official said that the Rangers, special operations forces who work regularly with the SEALs, secured the crash site afterward. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the event while the investigation remains ongoing.
For more than 40 years, the two brothers didn’t talk
about flying helicopters in Vietnam except for stories they deemed “funny.”
Keep in mind what’s funny in a war zone may not be the same to people
It had been a particularly rough day, says John D. Vassar, and he and
his buddy, a fellow pilot, “we might have drank too much.” They were
climbing arm in arm out of the officer’s club, built by Idaho National
Guardsmen at the bottom of a hole to avoid the labor of sandbagging,
when his friend slipped and fell against a light pole. He looked up at
John and said solemnly, “I might have broke a bone. I don’t have to fly
anymore.” Then he grabbed John with his good arm and slammed John into
the same light pole, seeking the same salvation for his friend.
“All I did was get black and blue,” says Vassar, who will be 65 this month.
More than 3.4 million men and women served in the Southeast Asia Theater
during the Vietnam War; 58,156 died; 2,338 are still listed as missing
Those names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington,
D.C., and on a replica, called The Moving Wall, that will be set up at
the Nez Perce County Fairgrounds Thursday through Monday.
It brings back memories.
The brothers, John and Richard A. Vassar, 69, joke about Richard being
back from Vietnam in the late 1960s and assigned to train new warrant
officer flight candidates. It was his job to be a real jerk, John says,
and when those students found out Dick’s little brother was in the next
class coming up, they formed a gauntlet outside his barracks, waiting
for him to come out.
“There was a time I would get to the door and say it’s not worth it.”
But when John graduated from flight training school, “Dick came down
with all his medals on. I had zero. We had a good time that night. I
think we forgot to go to bed.”
“I remember we were hobnobbing with one of the generals then, and you
were just in awe,” Dick says, laughing.
By the time the war ended, both Vassars’ uniforms were heavy with medals.
They will tell you they didn’t do anything any different than any other
American did. And some things they won’t tell you except for the basic
details. “I had four (helicopters) shot out from under me and one engine
failure,” Dick says. “One hard landing. The rest, I got back.”
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It was a young man’s war, most of them 18 and 19, old at 22, shipped to
the jungles of Southeast Asia to fight for something few people back
home really understood.
It was a different war than their fathers had fought, both at home and
on the front. And vastly different in some ways than today’s wars where
calls and emails race around the world in fractions of seconds.
“I got to call home once in a year,” John says, using ham radio
operators as relays.
In one way, however, it’s little different than today. In World War II,
no one worried about civilian and collateral damage, John says. But in
Vietnam, “we got into a war we couldn’t win, and it’s the same in Iraq
The draft was still in effect until 1973. The order of their calling was
determined by a drawing of birth dates. Many young men looked at where
their numbers came up and enlisted as a way to have some choice in their
Dick signed up in 1966 with the promise of learning to fly Mohawks, a
fast reconnaissance airplane. Once in the Army, his orders changed.
He was 24 when he started flying a Huey that had been converted to a
gunship, two guns on each side up front, two door gunners, 14 rockets
and 7,600 rounds of ammunition. He flew every day but two during the 13
months he was in Vietnam, he recalls.
Better to enlist than be drafted “because you might end up walking,”
Dick told his younger brother. John went to the library, read a book on
helicopters and passed the aptitude test that got him assigned to one of
the early Cobras. “It had tremendous firepower,” he says, 16,000 rounds
for the mini-guns and about 50 rockets. “If they (Viet Cong) didn’t get
you with the first shot, they were in trouble.”
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The brothers flew in two different wars, they say, Dick in the
southeastern region, the Mekong Delta with its wide-open spaces and
canals. In 1966, they were there to support the Army of the Republic of
Vietnam. “We provided bus service,” he says, sometimes hauling locals
from one village to another and once flying Gen. William Westmoreland,
commander of U.S. Forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968.
He was sent back a second time, to Thailand, he says.
Dick isn’t supposed to say much about that second tour, John says. He
couldn’t be sent back to Vietnam because John was there, so he was
assigned the job of doing radio intercepts, flying out of uniform in an
unmarked twin-engine airplane escorted by F-4 Phantom jets somewhere to
the north, “where Americans weren’t supposed to fly,” John says.
John was in the Central Highlands, the An Khe region. “I flew
triple-canopy jungle,” he says of the dense growth. He was mission
commander of a five-helicopter scout team with two light observation
helicopters they called “loaches” that flew low, then the wing man, and
above him two Cobra gunships. “And we always had a Huey with us so if
someone was shot down we could get them out.
“Those crazy loaches would get right down in the trees. I’d have to yell
at my best friend over there to get back out where I could see him.”
Their primary mission was to scramble if someone was in trouble and do
their damndest to get them out of trouble. Once in the air, there was no
one to tell them what to do.
They were warrant officers, something between enlisted and officers. It
was the perfect rank for a mission commander because they generally were
specialists in their field who didn’t intend to stay in the Army. The
1st Aviation Brigade insisted mission commanders be warrant officers,
Dick says, because they didn’t want officers who would be worried about
They flew at least every other day, and when he wasn’t on a mission it
was his job to test fly the helicopters that had been grounded for repairs.
“The most frightening thing in Vietnam,” John says, “was when someone
got in trouble at night and you had to go out. You couldn’t see the
horizon. If there wasn’t a moon, you couldn’t see where the sky stopped
and the mountain started.”
The cobras had enclosed cockpits and red lights for night vision, but
the light reflected off the canopy and turned it to a giant red ball in
the sky. “You turned off all the lights and turned them on quick, just
to get a quick look at the instruments.”
There wasn’t much worse than getting shot at at night, they agree. “It
looked like big green footballs coming up,” John says. “Ours were red.”
“And all you could do was sit there and look at them and isn’t that
pretty,” Dick adds.
“Normally they would let you quit flying about three weeks before you
left. My Cobras were out on a mission and the Idaho National Guard got
ambushed out on a mountain pass. We had to go out.”
It was a routine mission, providing fire support to get them off the
mountain, but it also was one of the few times their paths crossed.
“I’ve never even looked at these since I got out of the Army,” John
says, handing over some photographs taken in Vietnam.
One shows Dick with a full, bushy beard that would have been in
violation of regulations except that he had a face full of Plexiglas
“John and I have never talked about it,” Dick says, echoing a comment
heard frequently from war veterans. “When you’ve done combat, we know
what we went through.”
He stops, no longer able to speak.
His brother watches him protectively.
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The citations that accompany their medals tell the stories of fire and
blood and heroism.
Richard was awarded the Silver Star for his actions May 17, 1966, near
Soc Trang, for a long day of flying that included diving within 30
meters of an enemy position, which allowed his comrades to escape after
being shot down. Later that day, while covering ground troops, his
aircraft burst into flames and crashed. Despite his own injuries, he
re-entered the burning ship amid exploding rockets and ammunition, freed
two men from the wreckage and loaded them onto an evacuation helicopter
while still under fire.
The citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross for action Jan. 20,
1967, near Tan Son Nhut Airbase, credits him with 91/2 hours in the air
during which his ship destroyed enemy fortifications, sometimes while
flying only a few feet off the ground and firing just feet in front of
friendly lines. He was credited with helping to kill 108 Viet Cong that
day, and with hovering close to the ground while directing his crew in
the capture of five more.
The Soldier’s Medal, given for heroism not involving actual contact with
the enemy, says on Feb. 25, 1966, near Vinh Long, he crawled into a
burning helicopter twice to rescue the pilot out of a helicopter that
crashed after a mechanical failure, administered life-saving first aid
to several injured and supervised their evacuation.
“Warrant Officer (Richard) Vassar’s quick reactions and personal bravery
were most instrumental in saving many lives,” the citation says.
John’s Distinguished Flying Cross came almost three years later, 42
years ago this month. It was the night of Aug. 1 and 2, 1969, and he was
pilot and team leader of two Cobras assigned to provide aerial support
to a long-range patrol surrounded by a large North Vietnamese force.
“Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Chief Warrant Officer
(John) Vassar immediately began firing rockets, mini-guns and 40 mm
machine guns in close support of the team below, often as close as five
to 10 meters from the patrol members,” the citation says. After several
hours of continuous fighting, with fuel dangerously low, he refused to
leave, and continued firing while a medical evacuation ship removed the
wounded and the patrol was rescued, it says.
Years later, John says, he was reading a book, “Blood on the Risers: An
Airborne Soldier’s Thirty-five Months in Vietnam,” by John Leppelman of
Spokane when he came on the part about Cobras firing within inches of
Leppelman’s body as they provided cover, but also staying overhead for
eight hours until his patrol was out of the jungle. “That’s me,” John
He was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for Heroism for his skill as
an aviator after another aircraft was forced down during a battle near a
North Vietnamese base camp April 27, 1969. He flew at tree-top level
through intense fire so his crew could lay down heavy fire to protect
the downed crew, the citation says.
Their primary goal, the brothers say, was always to get the Americans
out. “You would do anything to make sure another American was going to
get out of it,” John says. “But neither of us did anything anyone else
wasn’t going to do over there.”
“I think individually what I’m proudest about … especially as mission
commander over five aircraft out looking for stuff, not one person was
killed. We got them all out. A lot of them shot up, but we never lost
one. That’s what you prefer to dwell on. And we got a lot of people
between us out of trouble.”
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After they came home, Vietnam veterans typically didn’t talk much. The
Vassars, like their peers, for years sidestepped requests for
interviews, even though they say they never encountered any of the
public disrespect and harassment shown some returning veterans.
They flew crop dusters for awhile, then one at a time entered the family
business, Vassar-Rawls Funeral Home. Both are now retired.
They talk about maybe going back some day. It was a stunningly beautiful
country, they agree, from the thick jungles to the checkerboard patterns
of the rice paddies and the terraced hillsides.
They have seen the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., John only
because his wife talked him into it. “It was very sobering, and a little
bit emotional, especially at night.
“And what did it accomplish?”
They read the names and realized they were fortunate to have come home.
“And maybe it made sense that Mom went to church every day we were gone.
Every day for two years.”
“And Grandma,” Dick adds.
Will they go see the Vietnam Moving Wall, a traveling replica of the
Washington memorial, when it arrives here this week?
“I’ve seen the real one,” John says, hesitating. “I don’t know. I might.
I don’t know.”
Dick just shakes his head.
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