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Bird’s eye view of the Vietnam War

Posted: September 24, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 24, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Vietnam veteran Thomas Jones displays a model of the type of helicopter he flew during the Vietnam war. Photo by Dan Watson.

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Thomas Whitlock Jones of Canyon Country recalls how he came to be assigned to the 7th Squadron 1st Air Cavalry in Vietnam.

He and another Army enlistee, Jim “Tink” Tinkem, were shuttled from base to base after arriving in Vietnam until they were finally assigned to one. Each time, he recalled during a recent interview at his home, the men tossed a penny into the toilet for good luck — and each time they were sent on to another base.

“Finally, we went to Can Tho, and we threw a penny in, and it was only the latrine water. So we went in and we’re sitting in the headquarters and the sergeant goes, ‘You guys are going to fly for the Apaches.’

“This guy comes storming in and he goes, ‘What you say?’ And the sergeant says, ‘They’re going to go fly for the Apaches,’ and this guy turned stone white. And Tink and I are both looking at each other going, ‘Oh man, this is not good.’

“So we walked down to the (latrine) and got our money back.”

Spread out on Jones’ kitchen table are pictures showing the faces of the men in his stories about the 7th Squadron 1st Air Cavalry, a helicopter squadron that transported foot soldiers and launched attacks with attached weaponry. 

Jones’ aircraft was a Bell UH-1H, unofficially known as a “Huey.”

“We got there (to the Apaches), and it wasn’t that much worse than anywhere else,” he said.

Jones recalled his first day in a helicopter above Vietnam.

“We had two ships shot down and then they caught on fire,” he said. Jones left his chopper to help retrieve wounded men and returned to find it nearly filled with them.

“I looked at the ship and it was just full of guys all burned up,” he said. The sight made him nauseous, he recalled.

“(The pilot) started taking off and we were in water, there was water in the nose bubble. We just went maybe 30 yards and we had to let all the water drain out of the skins.”

“He got us up, he got us off, and we got up airborne and he gave me the controls and said, ‘take us back home,’” Jones remembered. “The only thing that saved me was that I saw the Mekong Delta and thought, ‘Go to the river,’ ‘cause I had no idea.”

Jones flew over a thousand hours of combat/assault over Vietnam; one month he flew 142 hours in his helicopter.
“The most they wanted you to fly was 100 hours (in a month). But unless (the soldiers) were lucky enough to be along a major canal and a Navy ship was in there,” helicopters were the only way out, he said.
Jones is smiling in the next picture as he points to three bullet holes framing his position in the seat of his helicopter.

“There’s a picture of 741 (his helicopter) with the windshield shot out and a bullet hole right on the top and one right behind my head on the door jam.”

The mission that resulted in the bullet holes also earned him a Purple Heart when he and another pilot airlifted out 10 soldiers and then went back for 10 more.

“The last 10 guys were going to get killed if we didn’t get back, so we flew back in, put them on board. Then our windshield was shot out.” Jones took shrapnel in the neck.

After a time Jones and his buddy Tinkem maxed out on flying hours but hadn’t been in Vietnam long enough to go home.

“We signed up as machine gunners on a milk run,” he said. “We were taking the jeeps over to get supplies. I got over there and I ran into Bob Leavey. I went to flight school with Bob, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come with me; you can fly front seat.’

“There was this (M61) Vulcan Canon (a six-barreled automatic canon) put onto this Cobra, and the first time Bob flew it, (the Canon) ripped off.

“‘It’s going to work this time,’ he says. ‘We got a mini gun motor on it.’

“I went up with him and fired the first successful firing of a Vulcan Canon with him.”

Jones left the service upon his return to the United States and has recently located his old 741 helicopter preserved in South Carolina by another veteran.

He has visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., but he looks forward to seeing the wall in his hometown — and seeing one name in particular.

“I lost one of my best friends, Doug Erb (Patrick Douglas Erb; Panel 4W, Row 48). I came back from flight school and was all pumped up and I talked him into flying and unfortunately, Doug got over there and hung up a skid on takeoff and then rolled and burned,” he said. “So I’d like to see his name.”

The AVTT Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall goes on display at the Westfield Valencia Town Center mall on Thursday. Opening ceremonies are at 6 p.m. The wall will remain on display 24 hours a day until closing ceremonies at 5 p.m. Sept. 29.


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