"Where I went to high school was on a Navy base. I wasn't in a military family but a civilian family working for the Navy. And so we were around a military situation. The family always talked about military. So, it was not a big shock. We just expected to serve, and that's the way it is. When I went to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln I went through the ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps] program."
     Question: "Which at that time …"
     "Was mandatory. The first two years in college, you had to be in ROTC. And you could be in the Air Force, the Army or the Navy ROTC program, but you had to be one… ANd when I graduated in June of '66, I was commissioned a second lieutenant in Air Defense Artillery for the U.S. Army…
     "I had already applied for Army flight school when I was in college, and had gone through the flight programs ROTC at the university. So then, I went to Army flight school in April of 1967 at Fort Wallers, Texas, helicopter school. Spent four months there. Then I was transferred to Fort Rucker, Alabama, where I completed Army Rotary Wing Aviator course and graduated in December of 1967 and went to Vietnam right after flight school…
     Question: "I don't know how else to put this. How 'gung ho' were you?"
     "We were wound [up]. We were ready. And that's the way you have to be in the military. You have to go in with that attitude because that gives you the best chance of survival. We knew we were going, we wanted to go. And I remember in late part of 1967 having discussions with my flight school buddies that if we didn't hurry up and get to Vietnam, it was going to be over with before we got there.
     "And so then shipped out to Vietnam the 26th of January of '68… The unit I went to was in the Mekong Delta clear to the south part of Vietnam at an Army air base, assigned as a helicopter pilot flying for the Army. And got there, and the folks greeted us and said it was a great place to fly. We had a paved runway, we had lawns, we had sidewalks, we'd be sleeping in bunks every night, we wouldn't be out in the field in tents and we'd being doing a lot of flying. Could expect a lot of, a lot of work to go on in the flying business. And literally a good place for an Army aviator to be.
     "And they said, 'Take the rest of the day off and draw your clothing and your weapons and all this stuff at supply and get acquainted around the base and tomorrow we'll get you to work.' Okay, this sounds great! Well, that night the Tet Offensive started of 1968. That was not in the travel brochure. [Laughs] Things got serious real fast.
     "So what happened was, the night of the attack they got us together as soon as it was daylight, and the company executive office said to us the aircraft would be launched. They wanted them off the ground in case we got over run. They didn't want to lose the aircraft, and they were to go to a certain point and rendezvous and move on to another airfield. Whatever they had to do to save those aircraft.
     "And he dispatched those crews and he looked at me and another one of my flight school friends, who I still keep in touch with. And he looked at Lieutenant Nelson, my friend, and he said, 'Lt. Nelson, you're in charge of the west parameter ground defense. Move out. Set it up.' And I thought, 'Wow, I got out of that one!' He looked at me and said, 'Lt. Turnbull, you're in charge of south parameter, move out.' I spent the first week on the wire thinking, 'I didn't sign up to be an infantry officer.' [Laughs] The good news is the VC [Viet Cong enemy] never figured out that us greenhorns were on that parameter defense. I don't know that I was scared. I was a real apprehensive. Probably would have turned scared real quick if we'd have had a ground attack happen at us. But there were a lot of other folks there, so we would have been able to deal with it. But it was, yeah. But you got to remember when a guy is 24 years old you think you've got the world by the tail…
     "So it took a week to get the in-country check out in the aircraft. And then, that was the first day, that was like an hour or two flight. And then the next day, we started flying in earnest. And for that first 90 days, we probably flew six out of seven days. And I logged between, anywhere between eight and 13 hours of flight time each day, so that was in the seat flying. And it stayed up like that for a 90-day period.
     "We had what we called two lift platoons – in other words, helicopters that did transporting – and one gun platoon that flew the attack missions. There were four such companies in our battalion. There were two at our airfield and two at another airfield. And our battalion's job was to literally support three Vietnamese infantry divisions. So we worked right for what we called the ARVAN, Army of the Republic of Vietnam, rather than supporting American troops. Occasionally we supported U.S. units, but most of the time we were supporting Vietnamese units…
     "We flew an awful lot which is what we wanted to do. It's like you, if you're trained to do the kind of work you do and that's what you want to do. A lot of people often said to me, 'Well, didn't you feel exposed in the air? Wasn't it really dangerous in the air? Didn't that really scare you when you flew these combat assaults where you air lifted the infantry right into a hot landing zone and then left and then came back?'
     "The answer is no. We were trained to be in the air. That's where we were most comfortable. What we didn't want to be was the guy on the ground with the rifle. And the guy on the ground with the rifle is saying, 'Those guys in the helicopters are crazy.' But we each felt the other guy was nuts. Turned out neither one of us were. That's what each of us was trained to do, and you're most comfortable in what you're trained to do.
     "But, yes, it was a highly mobile type of warfare that hadn't been done to that extent before… So everything moved by air. And as an example on these combat assaults, out of our aviation battalion we'd have two companies a day on an assault and the other two companies were doing resupply missions. So, on an assault mission, you would put together your unit so you could air lift an infantry battalion into a combat situation. A battalion would be between 500 and 800 men. And we would set it up with two flights of 10 aircraft and each aircraft would haul 10 Vietnamese troops. So, you'd have a flight of 10. There was a company essentially, or half of an infantry company, 100 men that you were air lifting to a landing zone in one lift. And you'd go from a stage field which may have been 10 to 20 miles out from the landing zone. And the whole battle would start with air strikes out near the landing zone where they thought the enemy was located.
     Question: "Fixed wing or from helicopters?"
     "From fixed wing. There'd be Air Force jets coming in. F100s, F4s generally. Sometimes it would be – Once in a great while it would be prepped by a B52 strike, then we'd follow in behind that stuff. So the air strikes would be going in. There would be artillery support with Army artillery firing into the area. Then it would be the -- And of course, this was all planned out ahead of time where the landing zone would be. And the Army gunships and the helicopter gunships would go in just a few minutes before we did to do a low level reconnaissance of the landing zone. Go in low and fast and check things out. See if they could draw some fire. Figure out where the bad guys are located.
     "And then, we would get the word to start moving troops. And so, we would launch with a flight of 10. And we would head towards certain known points on the map. And when we were like two minutes out, we would call the guns and say, 'This is warrior lead flight of 10 inbound, IP3.' Or whatever the identification point was. And they would 'Roger' us, and they would give us a landmark to go towards. And then we would pick up a gunship escort – there would be a gunship on the left and one on the right. And we were in two vees of five tucked in tight. We would have door gunners both left and right doors of all of our aircraft with M60 machine guns plus the helicopter gunships on either side…
     "We would come in across the IP with all the troops on board. The guns would drop a smoke in the LZ [Landing Zone] to give us a wind direction and landing direction and instructions how to get in and get out. And we would land. The lead aircraft would land literally on the smoke grenade. Just, he'd say, 'land to the red smoke.' So, as they would land, the artillery would be lifted by the command and control aircraft. The artillery would stop for a minute or two while we were going in and the air strike would pull off. They'd be in orbit overhead. The guns would be prepping there. They'd be firing left and right of us to get, the idea is to get the bad guy to button up, to get his head down because he's going to duck when he got shot at, just like we did. So you get him to button up while you're landing. As soon as we touch the ground, the infantry troops would jump off left and right of the aircraft. So, all 10 aircraft would unload in less than 30 seconds. Our idea was, when we lift we took the power or the pitch control, shove it to the ground, as soon as it was down we started our take off. And if they [the infantry] were still on board, they went the round trip. We didn't wait for them. So we were on the ground less than probably 20 seconds. Just touch down, unload and then the whole flight, all 10 aircraft, would lift off the same time and then pull out and break left or right depending on what the gun's instructions were.
     "And as soon as we were clear, which would be about 30 seconds, then the artillery fire would start again to try to keep the other guys buttoned down. Now you got 100 troops on the ground. And that's a small unit and they're pretty exposed. So, if they got hit right then, they're in trouble. So the guns and artillery really went to work. Air strikes would come in and support them. And then a second flight of 10 aircraft would be about five minutes behind us with the second lift. And so then, this whole procedure would repeat. And with the second lift, then there'd be 200 guys. You get that force built up. Then you keep repeating those lifts until we get 500 or 800 men inserted."
     Question: "Were you ever hit? Was your ship ever hit."
     Question: "Tell me about it."
     "Well, stupid mistake. I was flying a single, what we call a single ship mission, which means you go out by yourself, you and your crew, to do a particular job. In this case we were to haul an Army sergeant, U.S. Army sergeant out to a little Vietnamese outpost on a canal. And those little outposts then in the delta were literally little three-sided, walled mud forts where they would have just a few folks stationed. There happened to be a birddog above me that day, which is an old Cessna L-19 aircraft with a single pilot in it. And his job was to go out and just scout the areas all the time. And he and I chatted on the radio about the best method to approach this little location. And it was in very flat land, and it had an intersection of two or three canals that came together. And so it looked like a pie cut with kind of pie shaped pieces of land coming up to this little compound. And along each of one of these canals are trees because that's the way they grew. And the rest of it was open rice paddies because it was an intense agricultural region.
     "And so I let down [landed] south of this little compound, and I flew right along these trees at a high rate of speed at about 20 feet off the ground. Approached the compound and lit the aircraft. And as the sergeant got out I said, 'We'll wait for you. You deposit this pay, and we'll take you right back.'
     "And he goes, 'No, no, no, I'll stay on the ground. You'll be back this afternoon to pick me up.'
     "And I said, 'Don't count on it.'
     "'Oh no, I'll be okay. You just come back this afternoon and get me.'
     "And I picked the aircraft up. And my mistake was I turned around and I went out the way I went in. Don't do that. I learned why in about 30 seconds. Because we were low level and we were doing about 80 knots, which was about 90-95 miles an hour at about 15 feet off the ground. And somebody was standing in the tree line and took a shot at us and put it right through my side window. Went right across in front of my face and went out through the co-pilot's windshield.
     "I had a brand-new co-pilot with me. He'd been in-country for a week. And there was Plexiglas laying in my lap. And I looked over at him, and he was just going – scared him because there was this hole right in front of his face. And I remember telling him, 'Get on the controls. You need to be on these controls with me.' And just as soon as we're hit we started a very rapid climb to get the altitude and flew on back to base. We were okay. Had a hole in the windshield, but everybody was all right.
     "And the reason I asked him to be on those controls was, if I would have been hit, the only way the aircraft would have been saved was if he could have instantly reacted to it. Because I would have probably slumped forward, bumped the controls. And at 15 feet off of the ground, you've literally got a part of a second before you've got to react or you're – you know, a pile of wreckage."
     Question: "Wow."
     "Yeah, that was close."
     Question: "A few inches, right?"
     "A few inches, yeah. So that was the time I got…"
     Question: "What did you feel?"
     "It didn't bother me at all on the flight back to the airfield. I thought, 'Okay, we took a round. So? Everybody is okay. Keep with the mission.' Got back to the field and refueled. When I got out of the aircraft, my legs started to shake. I went, 'Whoa, that was close.' But then, we finished the day out. I don't remember, the other half a day of flying. We never did go back and pick that sergeant up…"
     Question: "What did you end up thinking about the war after you got into it for a while?"
     "Oh, I thought we were on the right track. I'm still convinced we were on the right track. The military won that war. The military did not lose Vietnam. At the end of the Tet Offensive – which went on for 90 days – we had wiped out the VC. We'd killed 90,000 VC in 90 days throughout Vietnam. We had tore up their infrastructure, their command control structure. And we – Militarily we should have pressed it at that point, but that was not the political decision. The government decision was, 'Let's back off on the bombing of the north. Let's see if we can't do some other approach.' And so that's what happened. And we know the result.
     "But the military follows what the civilians direct. And that's the way it is, and that's the way it should be."

John Turnbull – Vietnam


Other Excerpts from John Turnbull’s Interview:

Anti-War Protests
Consumer Preferences
Water Quality
Natural Resource Districts
Surface & Groundwater