My Vietnam Helmet

One of the few mementos I have from Vietnam is the flight helmet I wore the entire year. Now the helmet was supposed to be turned in when leaving country, but with this particular helmet supply didn’t care to have it back, so into my hold baggage it went. This is how it became a memento of one’s life lessons...

Shortly after arriving in Tay Ninh in April 1968 I went to the supply room to be issued my in-country gear, chief of which was the flight helmet. The supply officer, David Norris, was a chief warrant who was very skillful in obtaining stuff of questionable origin. He had, as I understood it at the time, an entire truck load of new ballistic flight helmets [The US Army AFH-1 was the first "ballistic" helmet of its type. The manufacturer’s sticker is still in the helmet, from the General Tire and Rubber Company.] The problem was the sizes were way smaller than the “normal” sizing. This truck load of helmets he had somehow obtained were all size small.

‘So do you want to try one, they’re pretty small, no one else has been able to get one on”

“Of course I do”. 

So after a significant struggle I pulled the thing on, and although tight I figured it would “break in”. At this point I’m told no, you need to put these stick on pads in the helmet. I only had the Styrofoam lining and a hard rubber pad inside. There was supposed to be several thick foam pads for comfort.

After a brief consideration, with the word “ballistic” firmly in mind, I decide this helmet was fine.

Approximately 3 months later I had “broken” in the helmet and the persistent headaches had subsided to a manageable level.

At some point a new guy, Jim Cardin, had arrived in the unit and we somehow got on the topic of a television commercial we both thought was hilarious. It was a Stan Freeburg commercial for the Presbyterian Church. It’s about a guy who says he can’t make it to church this Sunday because he’s playing golf and next Sunday he promised to take the kids to the beach. And, he says, I never plan ahead more than two weeks because the whole world could blow up by then, heh heh. Then a chorus starts singing a jingle that includes “Out on a limb…Without Him…

Of course we decide right then what we need to have painted on our visor cover.

My name and home town on the back and on the visor cover, “Out on a limb…Without Him…

Shortly after the new improved helmet is put into action I get a rare day off, I think about July of 68. As with most days off it ended early that morning for an emergency support mission. The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Colonel George S. Patton, had a couple of APC’s disabled by RPG’s in the Michelin rubbers near Dau Tieng. They were under heavy fire from a fairly large NVA unit and wanted a CS gas mission flown to assist in getting the trapped crews out of danger. Our duty clerk tells me the only pilot available is a new guy who hasn’t had his in country checkout yet. No problem, I’ve been an Aircraft Commander for all of a month or so. I’ve never even heard of a CS gas mission never mind knowing anything about these big gas canisters we are going to drop, how they work or how high to drop them.

I make contact with the new guy, an FNG as they were known, at operations and with the usual disdain for an FNG, tell him to get the aircraft pre-flight completed and I would be out there shortly. We get cranked and hover over to rearm where they have the CS gas ready to load.  The gas canisters were several feet in length and composed of several individual tubes. There was some type of pyrotechnic involved that when discharged dispersed the crystals of CS into a thick white smoke. My crew asks from what altitude I wanted to drop the CS. With all of my experience I know low and fast is best, so I say 500 feet will do. I expertly explain to the FNG that fast and low over the rubbers will offer more protection than up high where they will have time to target us.

We arrive at the AO, coordinate with Patton and plan our approach, except now I decide on a more moderate speed so we can dump lots of CS in a concentrated area adjacent to a road. The Cav is lined up along the road ready to pull in and rescue their men, the CS keeping the RPG attack at a minimum.

I had been shot a several times and hit a few times in my brief time in country, but nothing had ever sounded like the fire we received on the first run. Heavy machine gun tracers, light machine gun tracers, RPG contrails, you name it. I was duly impressed that the solid white cloud of CS gas was making a lot of folks very unhappy with us and thankful we only sustained a few minor hits.

I then expertly explain to the FNG that higher and faster will work better due to the large volume fire. Higher to me in those days was a thousand feet or so. The results of the next pass are a little hazy to me. I recall it started out with more white RPG contrails headed our way than ever seen by anyone. Green tracers were very plentiful and a roar of automatic weapons fire that I now realize was them, not us.

Whatever blew a large hole thru the FNG’s windscreen was actually headed my way. It struck my helmet on the visor knocking my ballistic helmet off my head yet remaining attached to my neck by the chin strap. Whatever it was continued on out the greenhouse leaving only a few shards of the green plastic in the frame and then proceeded to hit the rotor head.  The force of the impact to my helmet had actually knocked my armored seat back leaving me with no helmet to instruct the FNG to take the controls since I could no longer reach the controls. As I regained my senses I was able to look up at the FNG flying the aircraft while looking back over his shoulder to see where I was.

The crew chief, whose name is lost to time, was able to sit me back up and I replaced my helmet. The FNG was doing a good job but definitely didn’t have enough airspeed. I told him to speed up. He tells me the things is barely flying, and shakes too bad to do more than 30 knots. This I don’t believe since all looks fine except for the large holes in the Plexiglas. Taking the controls again I quickly realize that 35 knots is absolute top speed. Something is seriously wrong with the rotor system but landing anywhere around here is a very bad idea, we clearly don’t own the land here.

We limp back to Tay Ninh. I inform operations that we need another aircraft and instruct the FNG to get it preflighted while I head to the flight surgeon to get some Plexiglas removed from my face. I remember he looked at me rather incredulously and stated “We’re going back?” Of course we’re going back, that’s what we do. And put on another full load of CS. I want some pay back at this point.

On the way back to the rubbers the FNG cautiously tells me he did a little research on the CS canisters and found we could set them for 5000 feet…which they did. I was beginning to think perhaps the FNG was now making good decisions. Of course I didn’t tell him that.

Upon arrival at the AO no armor is on the road, no friendlies are in sight. In a call to Patton he advised that it was after 5 o’clock and they had returned to base camp.

I have no idea what happened to the troops trapped in the rubbers.

The FNG turned out to be one of the best I ever flew with and later a Rat Packer, Lt. Jim Ray.

The helmet currently sits on the bookcase in my office, with distinct holes over the words “Without Him”.

Point taken.

John T. Wilson
Crusader 12