174th Assault
Helicopter Company


Biography of

Fred Thompson
Shark 7

A Vietnam Retrospective

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The occasional mortar barrage kept everybody somewhat loose, but it didn't mean you were gonna flee your place in the chow line. Or the fact that there was a sniper who liked to kick up dust around the shitters as you purged the daily malaria pill. I don't think anyone knew for sure if it was a VC or just a disgruntled EM (enlisted man) who had a bone to pick with certain officers…

The malaria pills came in two forms: A little white one daily with breakfast or, if you forgot... the big pink one that had to be ingested weekly. It induced almost immediate Hershey squirts. The fact that we were getting shot at out in the AO (and/or while taking a crap) had a habit of working on some guy's nerves.

Duc Pho could be referred to by three different names: LZ Bronco for the artillery; Duc Pho for the ville; and Montezuma for the hill that the installation/airfield lay at the base of. Word-of-mouth history had it that the hill (Montezuma) had been mined by every occupying force that had taken up residence: the Japanese during WWII, the French, the VC, the U.S. Marines, and the U.S. Army (Below: An aerial photo of Duc Pho)

A road had been cleared to the top, which had a MARS station and any number of communication personnel. The warning was issued to make sure you stayed on the designated trail, or he who wandered would very likely circle the drain. Old timers, in the coarse of a card game, would relate how they'd be startled at night by a horrific explosion, followed by the pelting of debris and body parts on the tin roof's of the hootches or "O club." I absolutely believed all the horror stories about the place, to include: "Don't ever go into the ville. They found one guy hanging from a tree. He'd been skinned and his *&%# were stuffed in his mouth!" Or, you could be infected with a not-so rare strain of "black Asian V.D." where they send you to this remote island to die and you'll be listed as MIA forever! Any time I was asked, "Hey Mister Thompson, I got a jeep. You want to go into the ville for a little culture?" I'd either take off running or just faint, right there, on the spot. All in all, Duc Pho was probably most notable in southern I Corp for the Korean-run "Steam and Cream."

It was sometime in September 1970 that Bob Gentry physically separated me from my reliable (yet inferior) Kodak Instamatic camera. He picked it up, gave me the film from it, and threw the camera in the trash. He then assisted me in ordering a Pentex "Spotmatic" SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera. He had two of them. He'd gotten them in the Bahamas for next to nothing. He had taken some of the most incredible pictures I'd ever seen there, which, according to his dad, his mom still has locked up "cause she still can't bare to look at them." One of the first pictures I took with mine was a post "floor show" group shot. It was of Bob Chipley, Steve Grooms, Mike Phillips, Bob Gentry and Guy Martin in the Misfit's, shortly before I broke the flash (The photo is below).

It was bad enough to be in Vietnam, but the new-guy stigma made it all the more difficult to bare. I can remember wishing time to go by quickly, not in order to leave, but just so people would get off your case. The fact was, I was one--an FNG--and seemed I'd stay one for a long, long time. (Webbie's note, a "civilized" definition of FNG might be Fumbling New Guy).

But, like any life style adjustment, the long hot hours turned into long hot days. The weeks began to pile up right along side of all those incredible experiences. Learning the AO (Area of Operations) became like playing in your own backyard: LZ Bronco with the sound of the big guns shooting out, or worse, the VC's mortars coming in… The Korean "steam and cream" for a haircut and massage on a rare day off… O.D. Lake… reporting Twin Tits inbound… or advising Duc Pho tower you were a single ship, southbound, "feet wet" for P.O.L.

As the months began to go by, the old guys went home, or were wounded, or worse, were killed. As a unit, we seemed to grow older together, if not closer, as big tragedies or smaller tragedies occurred. When we arrived, the unit was just beginning to recover from the loss of a whole Shark crew that had the hydraulic "hard over" along Highway One in May 1970. WO Henke had been a "super senior" (holdover) to our class in Texas. Henke along with WO Fred Sheffield and two crewmembers were instantly gone. Jarvis "Sugar Bear" Gambrell had been given the assignment to go to Chu Lai to make the identifications at Graves Registration.

On the same day, a Dolphin aircraft flown by WO Charles Uhlich and Rich Wondra was hit by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) in the cargo bay, while down in an LZ. It killed most of the troops on board and the gunner. Rich Wondra described the horror. He would tell me later that he would never recover as a pilot, due to that experience. Pilots such as CW2 John "Beetle" Bailey told me of his sense of loss when Captain John "Gibby" Gibbons had been killed on February 12, 1970. John Bailey was another pilot whose experiences would play heavily on the rest of his life. Death had touched them all and changed them forever.

Above: Left- WO1 Charlie Uhlich. Right- CW2 John "Beetle" Bailey

There was WO Harry Ward who got leg-shot on July 2, with Jack Dotterer, and went home. I didn't know him very well, but when I first arrived he was very helpful to me in getting settled. There was the senior Shark crewchief and gunner, Harrison Bell and Fred Vandiver, who were killed on July 6 along with Len Mizer (Lt. Brandt survived) when their aircraft crashed and rolled down a hill, south of Hill 411. On July 8 another of my classmates, Jim Dunnavant, and the rest of his 176 AHC Musket crew were killed in a crash, shortly after take off, west of Tam Ky.

During the first week in June 1970, aircraft commander WO Chuck Strumpke had given me an up-close-and-personal education on "How To" and "How Not to" do approaches and departures from remote and not-so-remote pinnacle LZ's in Vietnam. When he first gave me the controls nearing a hilltop unit for resupply, I did all the standard rate of approach and dissent I'd been taught.

Well, about a five hundred meters out, he grabs the controls and drops the bottom (collective) out and we fall like a rock. He yanks it left and then back to the right until the giant flare near the bottom and a perfect cushion. I thought we were doing some kind of a controlled autorotation.

We were!

He glares in my direction and states: "You got to forget about all that stateside, standard rate bullshit here! Out here in these jungles, and in these villes, you have a whole lot of ninety pound, political zealots with high powered, automatic weapons that would like nothing more than to blow your shit away! Your job is to survive, and to do that, you must make that little zealot's job a whole lot more difficult!"

I got it!


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