174th Assault
Helicopter Company


Steve Jennings' Bullet-Stopping Zippo

E-mail: runemaster

Dolphin Helicopter Crewchief
1970 - 1971

(All photos property of Steve Jennings)

NOTE: Click on the photos below to see enlargements of each. Then click on the "Back" button to return to this page.

Below is Steve's story "in his own words":

...I had only been in country a short time. I arrived in Vietnam early in September 1970 and was in the 174th by the end of the month. My one ambition was to start flying as soon as possible. It only took about a week and I became a door gunner with the 2nd Flight Platoon.

When the below event happened, I had only been flying about three weeks and had never been shot at. In fact I hadn't even seen any enemy activity yet. The only shooting I had done was in the occasional "free fire zone" where we wasted a lot of 7.62 rounds killing grass and trees and making splashes in creeks. I thought at the time, "What a great war, all the bad guys have already be wasted."

My thoughts were soon to be changed.

We dropped into the MAC-V pad at Quang Ngai one day and picked up some Colonel who wanted us to take him on a recon run a few kilometers due west of the airstrip at Quang Ngai. Apparently a couple of grunt squads (infantrymen) had come into some pretty heavy contact that morning.

We were flying lazy circles at around a thousand feet, but the Colonel wanted to get down a lot lower. We dropped down to about 300 feet. I remember Rick Gregore, the AC (aircraft commander), warning him that this was rather unsafe, as we were sitting ducks for anybody with a slingshot. The Colonel said HE would worry about that.

We made one pass over the suspect area and did a hard left 180-degree turn to have another look. Half way thru the turn, at least one .30 caliber machine gun opened up on us, along with a host of AK-47's. The crew chief immediately opened up with his sixty (M-60 door gun). All I could see was sky as I was on the high side of the turn.

The second the .30 opened up, something hit me in the hip like a sledge hammer. It actually knocked me over in the seat about half-a-foot. My right leg instantly went numb. Everything was happening pretty fast, and the collective was in the AC's armpit, scrambling to get some air between us and the hornet's nest we'd just stirred up. We were single-ship and no other Dolphins or Sharks even knew we were out there.

I started looking around to see what had hit me. I had no noticeable blood on me, so I was looking at a stack of M-16 magazines I'd placed in the corner against the transmission firewall -- nothing had apparently moved. Maybe the seatbelt had slapped me with the buckle. Nope, it was just laying there loose as usual (I never wore the seatbelt). I was really stumped, I could not figure out what had slapped me so hard.

My leg at this point was beginning to throb. As I was feeling around my hip, my thumb went thru a hole in the flap that covered the top of the pocket on the pants of my Nomex flight suit. I came up on the intercom and said to the AC that I think I'd been hit!

Immediately I was asked where? -- How bad!? -- I said I don't know -- there is no blood. Also at this time the boys up front were having their own problems, as our bird had a whole lot of extra vibration coming thru the flight controls that wasn't there a few moments earlier.

I moved into and stood up in the cargo compartment and dropped my pants, and saw a massive red spot all over the outside of my thigh, all the way down to the knee. A slight trickle of blood was coming from high up on my thigh. It was no more than something like you would get from a shaving cut. I still could not figure out what had happened.

We landed back at Quang Ngai, and as soon as I tied down the main rotor I reached in my pocket to grab my Zippo lighter, and when I felt it, everything became clear.

The Zippo had taken a direct hit from the .30 caliber machine gun. The big red blotch was lighter fluid that had leaked out of the base and caused a "lighter fluid burn" on my leg, and the small cut was a little sliver of metal from the bottom of the Zippo that had broken off when the bullet impacted the lighter, and the sliver had just penetrated the skin. A medic came out and removed the "Zippo sliver" from my leg in about two seconds.

I guess you could say I was wounded by my Zippo, and not the bullet.

But not really of course, for had the Zippo not been there to absorb the brunt of the impact, the bullet would have entered my thigh unimpeded, traveling upward, and gone who-knows-where inside my body. I was also lucky in that I was on the "top" side of the aircraft during the turn, and that machine gun round had gone through the aircraft before getting to me. The trip through the aircraft had certainly reduced the velocity of the round enough, so when it encountered my Zippo, it didn't have enough steam left in it to penetrate the Zippo. However, it certainly had enough punch left in it to flatten the lower half of the Zippo and to significantly bruise my thigh and to tramatize one of the nerves running down my leg.

As for the hits on the bird, she took more than half-a-dozen. There were three hits in the tail boom that didn't touch anything vital, and two went thru the roof, again with no apparent problem. The vibration was coming from one of the main rotor blades, as there were also a couple of holes in the blades as well as the rotor head controls. It's impossible to tell if the rotor blade hits were the same rounds that came through the aircraft first. On the rotor head, one of the large cyclic control push-pull tubes was severely damaged right were it attaches to the main rotor head at the damper control. The round hit the tube itself, and there was only a very small bit of metal left holding it together. That was scary -- I don't have to tell you how helicopters fly without cyclic control. We were very lucky it didn't let go. As I recall, the aircraft was immediately grounded at Quang Ngai and they flew up the Witchdoctor from Duc Pho to fix her. We got a ride with another bird back to Duc Pho and left our Dolphin there.

There was still one mystery -- What happened to the bullet that hit the Zippo? There was no exit hole on my pants anywhere, just the entry hole on the flap. This was solved several months later when we were up north during Lam Son 719. I'd become a Dolphin crewchief by that time, and Dave Sherida and I were in an off-limits village trying to score some of those little kero stoves that were so handy.

Well, the MP's picked us up walking downtown and escorted us back to the local jail, where we were stripped and searched for suspicion of having drugs. All we had were the stoves. I happened to be wearing those same pair of pants, and as the MAN was shaking them upside down to see what would fall out, I heard this thud on the wooden floor.

It was the bullet!

It seems that it had lodged just in the overlay seam on the side of the pants, and had stayed there all that time. I don't know what happened to the bullet after that. I lost it. The lighter came back Stateside with me, but the bullet is still over there somewhere.

One other interesting note... Back in Duc Pho we took a couple of polaroid shots of the lighter and sent them off to the Zippo company. We never got any answer back. I am still waiting!

The engraving on the lighter was done by a Vietnamese vendor in the Chu Lai PX where I bought it shortly before it became a casualty. Smoking sometimes does have its merits.

As mentioned above, the AC on that flight was Rick Gregore. Unfortunately, I cannot now remember the names of the other crewmembers on that day west of Quang Ngai. I only remember the faces. However, Dave Sherida was with me when we got nabbed by the MP's, when the bullet fell from the pants. I'm hoping some of the crewmembers that day will see this and get in touch with me. If you do, or if anyone else viewing this remembers this incident, please give me a shout at my e-mail address in the header to this story.

Steve Jennings

(Webmaster note: After posting this story, I notified the Zippo Manufacturing Company of the existence of this page, and after reading his story, they contacted Steve directly. Seems they want to use Steve's story. So now, after over 30 years, Steve is finally getting his brand new Zippo to replace the old one -- and he gets to keep the old one. Bonus! Guess Zippo still offers one of the best warrantees in the business.)