It took me twenty-seven years to make it from Alabama to the Vietnam Memorial, "The Wall," in Washington, DC. It wasn't the distance that kept me away. Anyone can drive from my place to The Wall in twelve hours. In fact, I came within a hundred yards of completing the trip, not once but twice. The first time was the day after my District Manager and my wife fired me. Twelve hours later, I was sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking at The Wall. I don't know how long I sat there. After a while I got up, walked back to my old pickup, and drove home.
Ten years later, I came home from the mill where I work. It isn’t much of a job, but I haven't had much ambition in a longtime. I walked up to my cabin and called Jimbo, my old blue tick hound and the only friend I had in the world. He didn’t answer. I walked around back and saw him curled up in his rocking chair. I knew he was dead. I pulled his battered quilt over his haunches, turned and headed back to my truck. I drove straight through and ten hours later, as the rising sun woke Washington, I was once again sitting on the steps below Abraham Lincoln.
I looked across the expanse of grass and through the trees separating me from The Wall and cried for a while. Then I went back to my truck and drove home. I wrapped Jimbo in his quilt and buried him on the side of Lookout Mountain. Yesterday, with no trauma to prompt it, I drove back to the Wall. I walked along the sidewalk across from the Lincoln Memorial, glanced at Abe, gave him a little salute and kept walking. I knew I would make it this time.
The sun had been up less than twenty minutes. The helicopters, mostly Hueys, were already making their regular runs back and forth from places I didn’t know, to the White House. It was fitting that Hueys would be flying on the day I finally made to The Wall, for I’d spent almost three years flying Hueys in Vietnam.
I didn’t fly a shiny, leather upholstered, well-insulated model like those that flew over The Wall on their VIP sorties. I flew stripped down, patched, dirt and bloodstained models. In the language of my time, I was a “Slick Driver.” A slick was a stripped down Huey, without doors. A simple steel frame, nylon bench ran its width. A slick had a crew of four – pilot, copilot, crew chief and a door gunner. Our primary job was transporting troops in, and hopefully out, of isolated landing zones.
I flew thousands of missions, sometimes a hundred or more in a day. In three successive tours in Vietnam, all with the Nomads, I lost many friends, including two copilots, four door gunners, a crew chief, a company commander, a platoon leader and countless others… and I lost The Tennessee Waltz.
The Tennessee Waltz was the toughest loss. The Waltz wasn't a man. Tennessee Waltz was a helicopter crewed by four men and a dog. That’s right, a dog. JoJo was his name. And even though the army doesn’t know it, JoJo’s name is on The Wall with the rest of the crew of The Waltz, exactly where it should be.
The Nomads weren’t always called the Nomads. Aviation units in the states aren’t allowed to adopt a nickname, or non-standard helicopter markings, individual headgear, or any number of other things that units in Vietnam did. When the Nomads arrived in Vietnam in 1966, they were C Company of the 225th Aviation Battalion, just another helicopter outfit in a place suddenly overrun with helicopter companies.
In their first eight months in Vietnam, they were reassigned to the 181st Aviation Battalion, then the 217th and finally the 335th. They went from one end of the country to the other before they finally stuck in the Delta with the 335th. By that time, helicopter units all over Vietnam were coming up with names for themselves. After three in country moves in eight months, and by unanimous vote, the men of C Company renamed themselves The Nomads. Within hours of the vote they realized they had a problem. No one knew what a Nomad looked like, much less how to paint one on the front of a Huey.
Other companies in Vietnam had names like Nighthawk, Robin Hood, Boomerang and Greyhound. Those companies had no problem coming up with a logo and painting it on the nose of their ships. The Greyhounds didn’t have to paint a thing. They asked the Greyhound Corporation for help and received decals for each of their helicopters. Finally, Major Simmons, the Nomad’s Company Commander threw up his hands and said, “Ok, each crew can paint a mascot or name of the front of their Huey.” As an afterthought he added, “Just try to keep it semi-tasteful.”
You can imagine the results of that directive. The Aussies, stationed next to us, began to call us the HNW Combat Aviation Company. They explained that HNW stood for “half naked women.” That was the general trend until Captain Ed McKinney appeared on the flight line with the outline of the state of Tennessee painted in dark red on the nose of his Gunship. Inside the distinctive outline of the state, lettered in bright red were two words, “Tennessee Waltz.”
Ed, his copilot, Roy Gill, door gunner Sam Heredia and crew chief Carl Green were already legends in the company. No matter how hot the situation everyone knew that you could count on them to take the heat off. That’s the job of a gunship crew, protecting the slicks while we loaded or unloaded troops.
With Tennessee Waltz painted on the nose of their ship, they became even bigger legends. Now both sides could easily identify them. 9th Division and 5th Special Forces began to ask for Tennessee Waltz when they knew the landing zones were going to be hot.
The entire crew of Tennessee Waltz volunteered for a second tour in Vietnam with the stipulation they could continue to fly together. At the end of their second tour, they signed up for a third. By that time, they lived together, sharing a four-man tent near the flight line. It was unheard-of for enlisted men and officers to live together, but it just seemed natural for the crew of Tennessee Waltz to do it.
About halfway through their first tour, a dog joined Tennessee Waltz. The way I heard it, they were covering the extraction of a Special Forces Team one afternoon. The slicks pulled the A Team out just ahead of a company of Viet Cong who were in hot pursuit. With the slicks safely way, Captain McKinney made one more pass over the empty landing zone. That’s when Sergeant Green, The Waltz’s crew chief spotted the dog heading for the center of the LZ with VC hot on his heels. Green shouted over the intercom, “Captain, there’s a dog in the LZ and it looks like he could use a dust off.”
Captain Ed McKinney loved dogs more than he loved most men. He didn’t hesitate, pressing the intercom transmit button as he swung The Waltz back toward the landing zone, “Get him on quick, Carl, Charlie is about to own this place.”
The dog ran into the middle of the LZ and stopped like he knew that he was about to be dusted off and it happened every day of his life. As soon as Ed put the skids on the ground the dog ran for the gunship. He jumped from ten feet out, and Carl caught him in midair. Both of them went down in the middle of the Huey. Sam screamed into the intercom, “He’s on, Sir. GO!”
Tennessee Waltz sprang into the air like it had been shot from a gun. None too soon either, as rockets and mortars suddenly rained down on the LZ. Carl named the mutt, JoJo. He said that when the pint-sized, black mongrel barked, it sounded like he was saying “JoJo, JoJo.” After he explained it, you could almost hear it.
Carl and Sam made a harness for JoJo. When they flew he was tethered onto the bench beside Carl. When Carl was hanging out on the skid firing his M60 machine gun, JoJo sat on the bench taking in the action like it was nothing at all. That dog was one of the coolest heads under fire that I have ever seen.
With almost three tours complete, I guess the men and the dog of Tennessee Waltz knew they were on borrowed time, but they didn’t talk about it nor did they become more conservative. If anything, passing time made them even more daring. They went up against overwhelming odds over and over, and they won. The legend of Tennessee Waltz continued to grow. I guess that’s the way legends work.
Late one September afternoon, I was flying back from Vung Tau. I had made a run down to pick up some engine parts, and, of course, as many cases of chocolate milk as my crew chief and door gunner could scrounge. We were halfway back to our base camp, enjoying the quiet afternoon when our battalion radio channel came to life.
“Any ship near LZ Tall Tree, we have a gunship down, over.”
I hit my radio transmit button, “HQ, Nomad 5, we are less than ten clicks from Tall Tree, over.”
“Roger, Nomad 5, 9th Division reports that one of our guns took a direct hit and is down at the edge of the LZ, can you check it out?”
I had already banked into a steep right turn when my copilot responded, “We’re on the way.”
Nose down, throttle wide open we were screaming toward Tall Tree within seconds when we got the second message, “Nomad 5, it’s Tennessee Waltz that’s down.”
I couldn’t speak. I just clicked my transmit button twice to acknowledge that I’d received the message.
We saw the smoke two or three minutes before we were over the crash. There was nothing we could do. The gunship was scattered over a one-hundred yard swath through the middle of the LZ. The only part big enough to identify was the nose cone, facing up. I pulled a tight circle around it and we saw in bright red lettering, “Tennessee Waltz.”
I continued to circle. That was stupid, but I guess I was in shock. Four of my best friends and the greatest little dog I have ever known… all gone, just like that. I came back into the moment when heavy automatic weapon fire ripped into the bottom of my Huey. The control column tried to shake itself out of my hands, and half my gauges bottomed out while the other half flew into the red.
I knew I couldn’t put down in the LZ. I turned in the general direction of our camp while Red Nixon, my copilot, began screaming "Mayday" followed by our coordinates. Theo Smith, my door gunner, and Jimmy Wilson, the crew chief, were throwing out engine parts and chocolate milk as I fought to keep the Huey in the air. Two miles later the engine flamed out and I slammed it down in a rice paddy. Jimmy and Theo pulled their machine guns as Red and I flipped switches, shutting down what power was left in the slick. The last message from headquarters came through as Jimmy opened my door and began to help me out of the cramped cockpit.
“Nomad 5, hang on, guns are on the way, but it’ll be at least fifteen minutes before they get to you.”
Jimmy and I groaned at the same time. We knew there was no way we would last fifteen minutes against a battalion sized unit of VC. We set up the two M60s on the dike of the paddy. Our only other weapons were the thirty-eight caliber pistols that Red and I carried.
We lay on the dikes facing the direction of the crashed Tennessee Waltz. We could hear the Viet Cong charging toward us making no effort to cover the sound of their advance. They had obviously monitored our radio transmissions and knew we had no immediate help coming.
The first wave of them broke out of the jungle a half mile in front of us and began plunging through the tall grass toward the feeble dike we were huddled behind. Jimmy and Theo opened fire. The VC kept coming. I screamed, “Cease-fire, save your ammo,” I’d heard that in a couple of John Wayne movies. It was a pretty dumb thing to say since they were less than a hundred yards from us and closing fast.
The silence after the M60s stopped firing was uncanny. Suddenly, it was shattered by the unmistakable sound of a fast moving Huey. The VC heard it too, but they were too far from the jungle to hide. The gunship flying at treetop level appeared over the jungle then dropped to the top of the grass, flying full-out less than ten feet off the deck. It must have been traveling at a hundred and thirty knots or better. It was on top of the VC in seconds, twin Gatling guns blazing, and door gunner and crew chief each with a foot out on the skids firing M60s.
The first gun run was over in seconds. When the Huey flashed past us, I saw JoJo sitting on the crew chief’s bench as calm as if he was taking an evening stroll through the company area. Sergeant Green switched the M60 to his left hand and saluted as they passed. I returned his salute as best I could from my prone position.
The gunship made a tight turn and came back for another pass. This time we were looking right at the nose of the ship, at Tennessee Waltz. The second pass wasn’t necessary. It was mostly for show and we did enjoy the show. The gunship continued its course and was quickly lost to our eyes and then our ears. Ten minutes later, two gunships and a slick from the Greyhounds picked us up. We didn’t report that Tennessee Waltz saved our lives. In fact, we never even talked about it among ourselves. I guess we figured that talking about it would probably take away from it somehow.
The Nomad Company Clerk loved JoJo better than anyone except the crewmen of The Tennessee Waltz. A couple of weeks later, he told me when he sent in the casualty report he sent in five names. He added Corporal JoJo Green to the list. I didn’t believe him until yesterday, when I finally made it to the wall. I looked up at panel 68, row 7, and read, CPT Ed McKinney, CW2 Roy Gill, SP4 Sam Heredia, SP5 Carl Green, CPL JoJo Green.
I couldn’t help it. I cried, actually I bawled, then reached out and ran my fingers over the names and shook like a scrub oak in a gale. I don’t know how long I stood like that. Finally, there were no tears left. With head bowed, I started back toward my pickup. I heard the sound of a Huey passing over, but I didn’t pay any attention. I’d been hearing them all morning. Then a little kid shouted, “Mommy, Mommy, look at the funny helicopter.”
I looked up just as a B Model Huey gunship flew slow and low over the mall. It was dirty and patched, armed with twin Gatling guns and two M60 machine guns. It made a tight turn over the reflecting pond and headed toward me. In the early morning light I saw on the nose, “Tennessee Waltz.” As it passed, I saw JoJo sitting on the crew chief’s seat. Carl was standing in the doorway, his dark helmet visor was lowered, but I knew it was him. He grinned and saluted. I snapped to attention as best I could and returned the salute. Then they were gone.
I felt a tug on my pant leg and looked down. The five-year-old who had first spotted The Waltz was looking up at me. “Do you know that dog, Mister?”
I couldn’t talk but I managed to nod. He stared at me for a few seconds and asked, “How about the men? Do you know the men, Mister?”
It took me a while to get it out. Finally, I managed to say, “Yes. Yes, I know them well. They are my best friends.”
His mother gave me a funny look, snatched the boy up and hurried away. I leaned against the wall, closed my eyes, and heard Lacy J. Dalton singing:
“I was waltzing with my darling to the
I remember the night and the
Now I know just how much I have lost…”