Sunday, December 7, 2008

Remembering Pearl Harbor--and a Chopper Pilot Named Dale Garber

Pilot Dale Garber and his Chopper, Vietnam.
My friend Paul Dillon sent me a wonderful post today, and I'm passing it on to readers on this anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day.

Paul writes: "As most of you know, on this day, Dec. 7, in 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor suddenly jolting America into the shooting part of WW II. What you don't know, nor should you unless of course you were there, is that on that same day twenty-six years later in 1967, 40 clicks (kilometers) south of someplace called Da Lat, South Vietnam, my friend Dale Garber, was shot down. It also happened to be his 24th birthday. He was then, and thankfully still is today, a pilot. If you know Dale, you'd know that he was born to be a pilot. If it has wings or rotors on it, he can fly it.

In 1967 he was with the 117th Assault Helicopter Company flying a "Charlie Model" Huey gunship. His call sign was "Sidewinder 3." On this particular Dec. 7, an American Special Forces listening post set up in the boonies to listen and snoop around, had been way too quiet for way too long. The 117th was ordered to insert South Vietnamese paratroopers into the area to have a look around.

Dale was flying the lead in an element of 4 gunships protecting 15 "slicks" (troop carrying helicopters) carrying the South Vietnamese troops. When they got to the landing zone, Dale went in to mark the area with smoke and to check it out. Command and Control had reported the area "safe," but when Dale made his pass over where the Special Forces guys were supposed to be something did not feel right. Command and Control again insisted that there had been no recent activity reported in the area.

As the "slicks" were beginning to make their final approach Dale radioed the other gunships that he didn't care what the reports were, he was going back down for another look. The enemy must have known that he suspected something because as Dale banked left and started to climb out from his second pass "Sidewinder 3" began receiving heavy ground fire.

His crew chief was hit in the shoulder. Immediately "Sidewinder 3" began returning fire and radioed for the "slicks" to abort the landing and get the hell out of there.

The gunships began working over the periphery of the landing zone with mini-guns, M-60 machine guns, and rockets. Heavily loaded with troops and their weapons, the "slicks" were trying as hard as they could to leave but were "low and slow." Dale came back around and got behind them to cover them from the rear. His gunship would be the last one out, and the last one through the enemy's gauntlet of fire.

Except that he didn't quite make it. His crew chief had been shot again and his M-60 door gun blown apart, both mini-guns had been shot-up and quit working, the rocket launch system had been shot away and the few rockets left were full of bullet holes. The chin bubble had been blown away and the hydraulic system had apparently been hit because Dale was losing cyclic control... and he noticed that the collective had been shot in two. Happy Birthday, Dale!

All that was left for them to do was to look for a nice soft place to crash. They flopped down in a muddy rice paddy northeast of the landing zone they had just left. Dale tried to shut down the engine but the controls had been shot-up so badly that the engine wouldn't shut off.

So there they sat, in the mud, in a shot-up helicopter, taking inventory of the situation with the engine idling. About that time pieces of the helicopter began to fly off as they came under intense fire again.

Dale, his co-pilot, wounded crew chief, and the other door gunner got out of the helicopter and began firing back with whatever weapons they had that were still working. A "slick" tried to come in and pick them up but was driven away by heavy ground fire.

About that time the gunships retuned and began vaporizing the tree lines with mini-gun fire. From out of nowhere a "slick" plopped down next to them. Dale got his crew and wounded crew chief into the helicopter and its pilot, Lt. Butch LaRoue, somehow managed to get the overloaded aircraft into the air and on its way out of there.

All 15 "slicks" made it safely back to Da Lat with no casualties. "Sidewinder 3" was the only gunship lost. The Air Force came back the next day and reported "Sidewinder 3" still sitting in the mud with its engine idling. They then blew it up.

As it turned out, the Special Forces post had been overrun the day before by a regiment of North Vietnamese with all of the Americans killed. The North Vietnamese knew we'd be coming to look for our guys, and they were sitting there waiting.

On this day, Dec. 7, when we reflect back upon Pearl Harbor and that "day that will live in infamy," I ask you to also take a brief moment to remember another Dec. 7, and remember Dale Garber and ALL our Vietnam vets, and their courage and sacrifice. They deserve so much more than what they got. Their victories were never reported, and their bravery either scoffed at by those who had none, or taken for granted.

As with all of our vets, never pass by an opportunity to thank them for their service. For without them backing them up, all of our fancy words about freedom and democracy mean absolutely nothing. And please, the next time you see a Vietnam vet, please be sure to WELCOME HIM OR HER HOME! Thank you and... WELCOME HOME, DALE! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!"

Thanks, Paul, for a great story. And may I add....Welcome home, Dale and Happy Birthday! -Rob

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