Frank Gall Jr. was not expecting to return to Vietnam after having already served two tours. But after two years in Germany, his tour there was cut short.
“I was told I would be there four years, but after two years I was curtailed and got orders to go back to Vietnam,” he said. “I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t given an assignment, but was going pipeline again. This was the time of the major drawdowns in Vietnam. I’d ask where I was going, and things were in such flux that they might mention one unit, then a few days later it turned out the unit wasn’t there anymore.”
Frank’s third tour brought him full circle: he ended up in the 52nd Combat Aviation Battalion, the lineal descendant of the 45th Transportation Group, a unit Frank served with on his first tour. He also wound up working with many of the same people.
“I was with two guys, Dick Peterson and Dan Bauer, that I had served with on my two previous tours. We had a lot of experience. We lived in a world where a man’s word was his bond, and you couldn’t live with rumor or innuendo. We could trust each other, and so the system worked. There we were with the same guys, three generations down the road. What a crew! I never worked with better people.”
Gall had written a complaint about his assignment process, and the letter followed him to Vietnam.
“When I got to Tuy Hoa, they said ‘We heard about you. The boss wants to see you right now.’ The boss, Col. (later General) Merryman, talked to me, saying he’d heard about me, knew I wasn’t happy about being there. It gave me an opportunity to tell him my side. I said ‘Yes, I’m unhappy, but it’s got nothing to do with your unit.’ He said, ‘Well I hope the tour works out for you.’ So a long story short he made me the assistant G3, which was my specialty, operations, and then they gave me a command, which I held through the Spring Offensive. And it turned out to be the best tour ever. It capped off the other two, it really turned out well.”
But the tour wasn’t free of problems. “I heard the commander of my unit had been fragged three times. I went down to look at his quarters, and sure enough there were holes all over the place. He was OK, but as a result, he clamped down and the MPs came down on the troops really hard, I mean really hard. I would watch as they’d stop a bunch of guys, have them up against the wall with their feet spread, just to check them out and see if they had any drugs.”
“That all changed when an infantry unit came in. These guys came right in out of the field, and they had nothing. They had what they were carrying on their backs. So they went into the MPs area and took everything. The MPs went back in to get it, and in so many words they were told ‘You don’t know how bad it can get for you if you step one foot into our AO (area of operations).’ I heard about that at a staff meeting when the MPs asked ‘How are we going to deal with this?’ and were told ‘Stay out of their area.’”
During his three tours, Gall amassed a lot of flight time, and a safety record that amazes even him. “People can’t believe it, but I have about 3,000 hours of flight time, and easily 1,500 of that is combat time, but I never took a round. Ever. I consider myself extremely lucky, and one of the rarities. People say ‘How does that happen?’ and I don’t know.”
Gall explained how dangerous flying was. “A pilot from our unit sent out a mayday call. I was flying and called in and asked for his itinerary for the day. The operations officer was really on his toes and he said, ‘If everything went right he should be about here.’ So I started going there and I saw black smoke coming up. He’d been shot down.”
As the word went out, other pilots from other units offered to help. “A Cav guy called in said he was closer than I was and said ‘I’m going to get him.’ I told him he didn’t know the area and that I would do it. But he said his (crew) knew it was super critical to get in there as fast as possible. We got there at just about the same time. He went in and I came in behind him to give him cover. I saw people running around, and the guy said ‘They’re not friendlies, they’re enemy. I’ll take a closer look, we can get this guy out.’ And the next thing I knew right in front of me his helicopter started shaking and peeled off. His co-pilot called and said ‘My pilot’s just been shot, I think he’s dead, I’m taking him to the hospital, he’s hit in the chest.’ He’d been hit with a .50 cal and didn’t make it.”
The crew from the downed helicopter was rescued, although their pilot was also killed.
Asked to relate his most harrowing incident in his entire time in Vietnam, Gall related this story.
“I was going on an assault with another unit. They took my aircraft, split up my crew, and gave me a ‘hangar queen’ (a grounded aircraft that is kept in the hangar and used as a source of parts for other aircraft). At 0400 I set out ... and the weather was bad, but you have to try. The thunderstorms were so bad our radio and navigation went out. We were at 10,000 feet and couldn’t get over the clouds or get through the thunderstorm. I said ‘I don’t care what kind of grief we’re going to get, we can’t get through.’ So we turned around.”
That was when the old hangar queen let them down.
“I heard a tremendous explosion, and the co-pilot yelled ‘engine failure.’ Flames were everywhere, reflecting off the clouds. I couldnt’ figure out what was happening, and it turned out I had vertigo. The co-pilot yelled ‘Artificial indicator, artificial indicator!’ I looked at my artificial horizon and it was sideways, and we were dropping 6,000 feet a minute. But once I leveled out it was like popping a parachute.
“We got lower and saw a village. We were yelling because communications were out. I decided to try to land in the street, because you can’t land in rice paddies in the dark. So the only thing we have to worry about it hitting (is) a telephone pole or wire over the street. Just as we were getting low enough we both yelled out ‘River’ as this black strip appeared under the aircraft. We both knew immediately that it was water. I did a low level 180, rolled the aircraft over, remembered my training (I attribute all my success in Vietnam, if you call it that, to great training), leveled the aircraft out and did a tree landing.
“The way to do a tree landing is to come down as straight as possible, and when you see the top of the trees come level with the windshield you pull pitch. So I did , and we chopped our way through these pine trees. The aircraft broke in half and came down on a canal full of punji sticks that came up through the aircraft. I’m amazed we didn’t get skewered. I banged my helmet on the rocket sight, punched my head through the overhead window and fractured my neck, knocked the door off, my helmet flew across the cockpit, broke the window on that side, then dead silence.
“We got out, the first thing you do is get out of the aircraft. We were covered in jet fuel. I vividly remember the pain in my back. It was pitch black, and I went back, got some stuff, came out and realized the crew chief was missing. I went back for him, then the co-pilot yelled ‘Rotor blades!’ The rotor was still turning, and I had walked through it four times. If it had hit me I would have been literally decapitated.
“We stayed there until the rotor stopped and we heard Vietnamese coming. We tried to get across the canal and couldn’t, so we got our guns off and ready. I said ‘I don’t know what to do,’ so we talked real fast: ‘We can’t get away, so we’ll just set up an ambush.’ So we did, and I said ‘Do not fire until I fire.’ We hear all this yelling in Vietnamese and I’m yelling ‘Dung lai, dung lai,’ which is ‘halt’ in Vietnamese. My gunner and crew chief were on either side of the aircraft, with me and the co-pilot, they had their machine guns. I yell ‘halt’ and I hear ‘Hello!’ I yell ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot.’ It was a Special Forces guy who’d heard us and saw the big ball of flame coming down. We almost landed on top of him. So he took care of us and called a medevac.”
Gall was checked out in the hospital, and given some strong pain pills, and three days later was back to work. But the rumor mill reported that he had been killed in action, and as recently as two years ago he found out that some of the people who knew him still believed he had died in Vietnam.
Gall knew the war was winding down, and not in a good way. “There was a feeling of ‘What’s going to happen?’ Things are kind of rough, there’s no one coming in to help out. One time we were told to prepare to evacuate. Nurses were evacuated, non-essentials were evacuated.”
Gall’s tour ended, and he went on to complete a successful career, retiring from the Army as a colonel. Years later, when South Vietnam fell, Gall was not surprised. “You could see it coming right from the start.”
Reflecting on his service, Gall remembers the good people he served with, noting that he found many good people even in an Army full of draftees who did not want to be there. “There’s always going to be good people, and if you can get them all together in one spot, that’s really something.”