Coweta's Vietnam Vets: By 1966, Vietnam saw troop buildup

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An American MP does crowd control following the April 1, 1966, bombing of the Victoria Hotel in Saigon. Coweta’s Don Rehman was housed at the hotel at the time.

By ALEX McRAE alex@newnan.com In December 1965, President Lyndon Johnson's advisors convinced him the only way to win in Vietnam was to send a massive ground force halfway around the world. On Jan. 1, 1966, U.S. forces totaled 184,000. Twelve months later, more than 385,000 Americans were in Vietnam.
At the same time the troops were pouring into Vietnam, network TV was bringing the world's first televised war into American homes each night. Politicians tried to minimize public relations problems -- and civilian casualties -- by imposing new rules of military engagement, including a standing order that ground troops could not fire until fired upon and then only "proportionately" to the attack. Soldiers determined to survive largely ignored such politically correct warnings, but still went to battle every day with their hands tied. The enemy had no such restrictions. Especially the Vietcong guerrillas, who mounted more and more operations designed to produce the highest body count and the most disturbing pictures for the American TV audience. Anywhere a crowd of Americans gathered was a prime target for Vietcong guerrillas. And in early 1966, none was better than the Victoria Hotel in downtown Saigon, which had been taken over by the U.S. military to provide housing for American officers. Coweta's Don Rehman arrived for his first tour of Vietnam in January 1966, serving as a major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Rehman, who later retired as an Army colonel, was charged with advising and training the South Vietnamese Army Signal Corps. He said the South Vietnamese soldiers were dedicated troops who did their jobs well. Rehman was housed on the fifth floor of the Victoria Hotel and said he and his fellow soldiers were aware their quarters were in the enemy crosshairs. "That hotel was full of Americans," Rehman said. "It was a good target." As a security measure, huge concrete barriers were placed in front of the hotel to prevent potential bombers from driving into the building. But Saigon civilians complained about having to walk into the street to avoid the barriers. Rehman said a senior U.S. military official decided to show that the Americans were "fearless" by removing several barriers in front of the hotel's entrance. The Vietcong noticed and about 5:10 a.m. on April 1, 1966, guerrillas drove a two-and-a-half-ton truck packed with explosives past the remaining barriers and straight toward the hotel lobby. American MPs on security duty attacked the Vietcong and sent the truck crashing into the front wall of the hotel instead of inside the lobby as the attackers had planned. The resulting blast still demolished the front of the hotel and caused extensive damage to the hotel's first two floors, including the first floor dining room, which was believed to be the attackers' primary target. Apparently, the Vietcong believed Americans started serving breakfast at 5 a.m and timed their attack to hit the hotel when the ground floor dining room was packed with soldiers. Fortunately, the Vietcong were wrong. Americans didn't start breakfast until 5:30 a.m. and none were in the dining room when the blast devastated the building. "If that bomb had gone off 10 or 20 minutes later we wouldn't be having this conversation," Rehman said. Several Vietnamese civilian workers died in the blast. An American MP stationed at the hotel was shot when he raced to stop the attack and forced the truck into the front wall. Another MP driving near the hotel when the bomb went off was killed in a firefight when he raced back to the hotel to help. "They saved us all," Rehman said. Rehman was on the fifth floor and was uninjured, but the blast destroyed the communications facilities and he was unable to call his wife and tell her he was safe. Meanwhile, she saw the devastation on TV and thought the worst. "My wife didn't know what had happened," Rehman said. "She thought I was gone." Two days later Rehman finally managed to contact his wife and assure her he was safe. Then he moved to other living quarters and continued his assignment. "You never knew where the enemy was," Rehman said. "It was a tough situation." While the Vietcong mounted guerrilla attacks, American and North Vietnamese troops fought from one end of the country to the other. Americans won battle after battle, but the death toll continued to rise. Troops in the field knew, however, that the casualty count would have been much higher had wounded soldiers not received medical treatment as quickly as they did, and that timely treatment was only possible because injured men were taken from the field by medevac helicopters manned by pilots, crewmen and medics who routinely risked their lives to save their fellow soldiers. The Army's aeromedical evacuation effort was called "Dustoff." The pilots who flew the medevac choppers were known as "Dustoff pilots." Coweta's Willie Boyd was one of them. Boyd was born and raised in the Cotton Valley community south of Tuskegee, Ala. Boyd attended Tuskegee University and graduated with a degree in biology in June 1966. He was in the advanced ROTC program and, upon graduation, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and given a choice of joining the Army Reserve or serving on active duty. Boyd chose active duty and was soon on his way to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, as a member of the Army Medical Corps. The minute Boyd arrived in San Antonio, he was reminded that America's civil rights struggle was far from over. "When I got there, I couldn't get a cab to the base," Boyd said. "They wouldn't pick up a black man and weren't even happy I asked. The tension there was so thick you could cut it with a knife." Boyd called Fort Sam Houston, and the duty officer didn't hesitate before sending a staff car driven by a private to pick Boyd up and drive him back to the base. "That was nice," Boyd said. "My first impression of the military was very positive." During his training Boyd took a course in medical evacuation procedures being used in Vietnam. After one class the instructor asked if anyone wanted to fly helicopters. Boyd remembered watching planes soar overhead as he worked the Alabama cotton fields and thinking how nice it would be to fly. Once he was offered the chance, he jumped at it. Boyd easily passed the aptitude test and rigorous flight physical, and once he was accepted as an aviation student was even more excited when he learned he would get an extra $110 per month as a flyer. He realized why it was called "hazardous duty pay" when a student pilot in his class was killed in a training flight crash. "That was terrible," Boyd said. "One day I'm sitting next to that guy and the next day, he's gone." Boyd said the incident gave him second thoughts, but not for long. "My attitude was I was gonna finish flight school no matter what," Boyd said. "I wasn't going back home and hear people say 'I told you you couldn't do it.'" Boyd completed advanced flight training at Fort Rucker, Ala., earned his wings in June 1967, and went back to Fort Sam Houston to join the 507th Ambulance Company. He spent time picking up people injured in San Antonio auto wrecks and flying food, water and relief supplies to citizens stranded by the flash floods that often inundated south Texas. In October 1967, Boyd headed to Vietnam. The flight over on a C-130 cargo plane took four days, due mostly to unscheduled stops to repair the aircraft at Guam, Wake Island and the Philippines When Boyd and his fellow soldiers arrived in Vietnam they didn't know what to expect. They loaded their M-16s, slung bullet-filled bandoliers over their shoulders and each stepped down the ramp of the huge plane looking like Rambo. The commanding officer who met them took one look, ordered them to unload the weapons and stow the ammo and then put them to work. Boyd learned the ropes by flying missions with seasoned combat veteran pilots. His first mission seemed uneventful. He could see the landing zone clearly and didn't think there would be a problem picking up the patient and heading back to base. But he noticed that as the chopper approached the landing zone, the veteran pilot started sweating profusely. "He looked nervous," Boyd said. "But I didn't know why. Things looked fine to me down there." Then the chopper landed and bullets started flying. Boyd said he still wasn't too concerned. "You could hear bullets all over but we didn't get hit and I wasn't too worried," he said. Boyd said it took a few more flights for him to realize why the pilot on that first flight had been so worried. "He saw things I didn't," Boyd. "I was looking at the scenery, but he saw troop movements and potential problem areas and knew we were going to take some fire. I had to learn how to see what was happening down there and not just look at where I was going. I learned pretty quick the best way to stay alive was to keep from doing something stupid." Boyd was soon assigned his own chopper. His first flight as pilot was at night into a "hot" landing zone where a firefight was under way. A pair of helicopter gunships flew on either side of him. The gunships led him to the landing zone and laid down suppressing fire while Boyd and his crew picked up their patients and flew out with no problems. "I thought it was great having those two gunships with me," Boyd said. "But it turns out that was the first and last time I ever had a gunship escort. The rest of the time we were on our own." Boyd said the key to a successful mission was getting in, getting the patients aboard and getting out as quickly as possible. The medevac choppers were intended to carry three men on litters and four ambulatory patients. Boyd said he just picked up as many as he could and once packed 22 patients on board. Boyd said the medics who left the choppers to locate and load the wounded soldiers were the real heroes. "They had to go out there in the line of fire and pull those guys in with bullets flying at them the whole time and they never complained or backed off," Boyd said. "They were great." Boyd said his closest call came when he was picking up wounded soldiers from the 9th Infantry Division during a major battle with the Vietcong. When Boyd arrived the gunships had left the area to refuel and rearm and he was on his own. He looked down and saw the casualties and the landing zone but something was wrong. "I don't know what it was but the hair on the back of my neck stood up," he said. "It was like a sixth sense telling me things weren't right." As soon as the medic jumped off to collect injured men, the Vietcong opened up on the chopper and a round sailed right past Boyd's head. "It got scary in a hurry," he said. "We were always a prime target. I heard that more medevac choppers got shot down than choppers on other duty because we only went where there was fighting. We got plenty that day." Boyd had another close call during the January 1968 Tet offensive at a Y-shaped bridge south of Saigon. The fire was heavy and Boyd said after several trips in and out of the LZ with wounded troops, he remembers leaning out the chopper to direct some air traffic and found himself staring down at a Vietcong on the ground pointing an AK-47 at him. The rounds started coming straight at Boyd. "I said, 'Oh, Lord,' and a few bad words, too," Boyd said. "I knew that was it, but I got busy and got out of there before I was hit. They shot out our radio and the flight deck was really chewed up. People said I was lucky and I told them that back home we said if you looked like your mother you would always be lucky and I definitely looked like my mother so maybe that's what it was." Boyd retired from the Army in 1994 as a full colonel. He said he will never forget the time he spent in Vietnam. "I know we saved a lot of lives and that was our mission," he said. "I just did my job and so did everybody else on my crews. I was glad we did some good."


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