You are 19 years old, Infantry 101st Airborne division, seated in the open door of a Huey helicopter launched on a CA (Combat assault by air)— There are 5 other Soldiers seated on the floor of the ship with you. Helmeted/Sun Visored Door gunners man M-60 machine gun’s on the left and right rear of the cabin. There are 5 other Huey’s to put your platoon into the bush. You are on the 3rd aircraft as they fly in a line. Your MIssion: Go Kill the enemy in the Jungle of Vietnam near the Ashau Valley.Flight time about 20 minutes.
The beauty of the Jungle stretches to the horizon. Hot wind blows in your face as the ship flies at 100 knots skimming the tree tops Looking out forward you see F-4′ (Fighter Bombers) pounding the hill you are going to land on in about 2 minutes. There may be Dinks( the term US GI’;s used ) on that hill., There may not be. That last 2 minutes in the air, is the definition of anxiety. As the Helicopter approaches the Hilltop to land the pilot flares the ship ( to “flare” a Helicopter the pilot puts the nose of the chopper up and reduces speed quickly and gently brings the descending aircraft to a hover at anywhere from 2-8 feet above the ground in the ideal.)
I always preferred to be first off the ship from about 4-6 feet . Remember the infantry soldiers are carrying ruck sacks on their back weighing anywhere from 30-50 pounds. This does not include weapons and ammo. — and during that final approach, the flaring of the aircraft, that’s when you learn all pilots are not equal. There may be smoke or even fire on the LZ ( the Landing zone), maybe a couple of cobras on station (Helicopter Gun Ships) —- If you have an experienced combat pilot he’s going to come in fast, flare and drop you from 4-6 feet off the ground. He did his part (getting you in fast and close to the ground ) — Now you (Grunts) do your part — Get the Fuck out of the ship quickly! –— (where is the rest of the unit? In the near Tree line? In that clump of Elephant grass ? Were you paying attention to the ground as you came in? Did you see how the first 2 Choppers went in?). Again I prefer to be in the door if not on the skid as my launch point to disembark. Get a Nod from the crew chief if you want to stand on the skid during approach. In the open door you will be able to gauge how the Pilot brings the ship in and leap to the ground — (There is an art to this, too long to go into here– ) It is at this moment, when you jump to the ground that is an inexplicable high!! …..Once hitting the ground, the roar of the ship is deafening as the rest of the team exits the Chopper. There is now a partial sense of relief...” Well I’m on the ground and no one is shooting at me yet”. As you run to join the rest of the platoon, the tremendous aircraft engine noise fades away as the last ship in departs the LZ. Suddenly it’s very very quiet. Listen! If there is No small arms fire that is a good sign!!…… the Pink Team or an O-2 may still be on station, but your immediate environment is now quieter and easier to interpret. One key to staying alive in the jungle is noise discipline. Don’t make unnecessary noise! Communicate by whisper or hand signal. ..Once the platoon Sergeant has the unit organized, we move out Going who knows where…. In my experience the majority of CA’s were not met with enemy resistance. Thankfully! Yet It’s that last 2 minutes on the ship and the first couple of minutes on the ground that are the most fun, exciting, gut wrenching and stimulating time of your short life. Professionally I was a Network level TV News cameraman for 18 years. —– but nothing in my life experience, ever matched the RUSH of going in on a Helicopter CA in a Slick as a member of an Infantry unit. Believe it or not…. it was addictive. I’ll never forget it,
Many in the infantry received the Blue and Orange ribbon “Air” Medal “awarded for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.”. I remember when my Platoon Sgt. handed me my orders as a recipient of the Air Medal. No Ceremony. No Handshake. Just “here you go”. When I look at my framed Air Medal hanging on a wall in my home, it is that last 2 minutes Inbound on the chopper that comes back to me. The whap/whap/whap of the Huey, the hot air in my face, the sound of the fighter bombers, the leap to the ground and the stomach in knots…….
I remember it all, even now as an old man…..
Mike Whatley / 101st Airborne Division / I Corps Vietnam. 70-71.
. Mike Whatley taking off in a “Slick” . headed to the Jungle. Spring 1971
I was a Television News – field photographer, field technical director, KU SAT Op and field producer for 18 years. Based in Washington DC I shot news and sports into the mid-90s. I took a Masters Degree and then went into television technical ops management. (and I continued to have a professional blast in broadcasting.) In 2003 I went to work for KABC in LA. You can not have had more fun than I did. Retired Fall of 2013. At age:63
Me: Standing in the center of Hollywood Blvd. during the Oscars 2011. Entertainment Tonight and BBC cameras on the platform above.
A few of the dozens and dozens of News ID’s–over the years.
In LA, when we upgraded to the last of the “Big Iron” Cameras- My Boss and I pushed for the Canon 22:1 Lenses. Even at our huge discount they were over $20K each. We bought just shy of a half-million dollars worth of Glass. We had the best – looking video in LA.
Desert Storm: We’re driving toward Kuwait in Saudi Arabia– and we come upon a broken down US Tank. The Tank Commander was an E-5 Sgt. He laughed when I said, “Hey Sgt. If you don’t want us to shoot you and your out of operation tank we won’t!” He said, “No, it’s ok”. (I didn’t want to embarrass the man!)
Below: Set up at the Emmy’s 2013. Me taking a break on the Entertainment Tonight Camera platform.
This was my first time to go to the White House. Snow covered the ground that day. — Age: 29. Feb. 1980. As I recall it was a Sunday afternoon. President Carter was not on the grounds that day. I remember going into the Press Room (which was nothing like it is today, with the movie theater style seating). I picked up a phone on the wall and called my grandMother in East Texas. When I told her where her grandson was calling from she was of course beside herself. I went back many times after this….but some years later when I was asked if I wanted additional assignments at the White House, I declined. It may be the White House, but for a photographer, it’s mostly “talking heads”. Not my style.
Photo of the White House Spring 2017
What I am reading:
It took me 6 years to complete my undergraduate degree. One of the reasons was the study of “Economics”. I stumbled into the classic macro-economics course at the University of Texas. It was taught by a Rock Star Professor though I was unaware at the time of registration. He was Harvard trained economist Dr. Clifton Grubbs an AAUP teaching Professor of the Year. — Dr. Grubbs and Paul Samuelson’s famous undergraduate textbook “Economics” changed my world view! — So take this recommendation!! Wapshott makes the “dismal science” fun! Oh and I took 4 more Economics department courses. None counted toward my degree!