Most Vietnam veterans served one year-long tour of duty “in country.” Career officers usually served two tours. Col. (Retired) Frank Gall Jr. served three tours in Vietnam, making him one of the more experienced officers of the war.
Because of his unusually long service in country, this article will cover his first two tours of duty; his third tour will be covered in next week’s article.
Gall went to college at The Citadel, one of the oldest military colleges in the country. Upon graduating in 1962, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and assigned to the Signal Corps. Before long, however, he volunteered for Aviation, attracted by the prospects of adventure and better pay.
His orders to report for helicopter flight school were accompanied by orders to report to Vietnam when his training was done. He arrived in Vietnam in April 1964 at a time when the armed helicopter concept was still in its infancy.
“At that time there were no major units there,” he said. “I arrived through the pipeline and was assigned to the 45th Transportation Battalion. I had no idea what that was. It turned out to be a kind of holding cell for building up a helicopter unit.”
Invented in the 1930s, helicopters were used in the Korean War for observation and to evacuate wounded troops. Vietnam was the proving ground for the armed helicopter concept.
“Helicopters were really just coming into their own at that time, so almost everyone coming in there was in the pipeline to somewhere else. It wasn’t until I was getting ready to leave, the major units first started arriving. I stayed in the pipeline; I never rotated with a unit.”
Gall described the helicopters of the day. “They had A model Hueys, which weren’t that efficient, but got the job done, and were being replaced by B models. They armed everything. If you could come up with an idea somebody would give it a try. Someone would say, ‘Let’s see if we can put a machine gun in the doorway of this cargo helicopter,’ and they’d do it.
“When I got my first armed helicopter, we sat there, me, my crew chief, and the co-pilot, with the instruction manual to get this thing to work. We were given a manual and told, ‘Here you are, the electronics are all set up, get your guns and your rockets on there.’ And when we got to a certain point we called in the civilian tech rep to come in and fix the rest of it up.”
Gall spent six months or so with the 45th at Tahn Son Nhut airfield near Saigon, “going everywhere and doing everything,” before volunteering to fly gunships—Huey helicopters specially equipped and adapted for combat air support—and moved to Phan Thiet.
“When I arrived at Phan Thiet, I met with the provincial adviser as leader of a heavy fire team of three gunships. And he says, ‘This is your AO (area of operations), and this is a free kill zone. You kill anything you see moving.’ And that was my mission. And naturally you didn’t. You see an ox and a farmer plowing a field, I don’t care, you’re not going to do it. I’m not.”
His team took on all sorts of missions. “Gunships were rare in those days. There were just not enough, so if your area was cold you went somewhere that was hot. I was on patrol most of the time, and most of the time the patrols were just going out and looking for changes, but every now and then you ran into something. In that area we supported Vietnamese forces, there were no American forces there, only advisers.
“Were in the middle of nowhere. We were well supplied, we never ran short of ammo or rockets, but we were on our own. If you needed a doctor, that was an hour’s flight. If you got in trouble, help was an hour-and-a-half away.”
Being out in the middle of nowhere, however, did not stop them from flying wherever missions were needed. “We went everywhere in II, III and IV Corps. We did VIP transport, assaults, medevac, we did resupply, everything.”
Many veterans have lots of photos of combat and the aftermath, but not Gall. “I always carried a Minolta with me. I took almost zero pictures of combat because it just didn’t feel right.”
At the end of his first tour, Gall rotated back to the United States, where he was assigned as a tactical flight instructor and helped develop manuals about helicopter combat. Being home from the war, however, did not mean he was out of danger.
“Training was very dangerous. We had a number of people killed during training. It was especially dangerous at that time because everybody who came to Fort Rucker tried to make an impression. It came to the point where the instructors thought the pilots were thinking, ‘Let’s see if the instructors can do this maneuver.’”
By spring 1967, Gall’s number came up, and he was on his way back to Vietnam for his second tour. “My second tour was a piece of cake for me. The only thing exciting there was Tet. Tet was pretty interesting.”
Stationed in Nha Trang, he had just come in from flying a mission. By the time he and his crew got their aircraft squared away, it was dark and everyone else had gone.
“I didn’t feel like going to the club, so I went downtown to get a bowl of soup. I was coming back and things just didn’t feel right. The streets were deserted. I had a Jeep and was living on the economy in rented rooms, and when I got there no one was there, it was all dark. So I sat down and started doing whatever I was doing.”
But the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had other plans for the evening. “I guess around 10 o’clock I started hearing gunfire. And I thought, ‘Well, this is close!’ And the gunfire kept up, and it got closer and closer and into the alley where my room was. They were fighting and screaming in Vietnamese. I really got scared, so I piled furniture up against the door and sat in the corner all night with my .45 and my rifle while the fighting went on right outside the door. Thankfully they didn’t know I was there and were busy fighting someone else.
“I sat there until morning, about 9 or 9:30 when I didn’t hear anything anymore. I pulled the furniture away from the door and jumped into my Jeep and drove to the base. I was ticked that I’d been let off post and nobody told me anything. Everyone else had a warning. They probably thought I’d got the word, but I didn’t.”
It did not take long for Gall to realize that something big was going on. “I got back and got word there was a unit with a couple of guys I knew in trouble up in Kon Tum. They needed to be extracted. I figured I could just fly in and pick them up, and we’d leave. But by the time I got there I was low on fuel, there were aircraft everywhere, and it was very confusing. There was smoke everywhere, and explosions and fighting going on everywhere.
“I got on the radio and asked: ‘Where’s the refueling point?’ Someone said, ‘It’s on the west end of the airfield, but watch it.’ I was really hurting for fuel so I went in. As I started to hover to set down I see a bunch of people come running towards me, and gunships come in right behind me and take them out. A guy calls on the radio and says ‘That end of the field belongs to the NVA, so you better get out of there.’ So I turned the aircraft and hovered back down to where I knew our troops were and set down.
“I told my gunner to see if he could get someone’s attention, then I looked down and saw that my skid was lying right across a foxhole. And there’s a guy there shooting out of that foxhole. He looks up and sees me. So I say: ‘I’m looking for the signal unit that’s supposed to be here, where is it?’ He told me they were on the other side of a nearby tree line.”
Gall took stock of the situation. “I’m worried about my fuel, I was on my warning light, there was shooting all around me, but I’m fine, no problems so far. Gunships are everywhere, and at least I’m not at that refueling point anymore. So I hop over the tree line, and I get these guys on the radio and I say ‘Come on, get on board, I’m really low on fuel.’ They were in a bunker nearby and they said, ‘We’re under fire, we can’t get out.’”
“So I say, ‘You gotta to make up your mind. You’re either coming now or I’ll have to come back later and get you. You’re the ones who called for the rescue.’ So this buddy of mine says, ‘We’ll try to make it.’ And just then either mortars or artillery started coming in on us, explosions right at the top of the trees. I’m thinking I’m not going to stay here another minute. Then I see these guys bail out of the bunker and they are running across to me, and it was like a John Wayne movie. They’re running and behind them the bullets are kicking up dirt. I tell my crew chief and co-pilot ‘As soon as they get on board grab them so they don’t fall out, as soon as they touch this aircraft I’m pulling up.’
“So they jumped into the aircraft, and these bullets tracking them go right underneath the aircraft. I thought I’d been shot. And I sat there just long enough to say to my co-pilot ‘Are you okay?’ and he said ‘I don’t know, are you okay?’ I said ‘I don’t know,’ and we pulled pitch as the crew chief is still pulling them in and we’re already taking off.”
After Tet, Gall said the rest of his second tour was “a piece of cake.” What he did not know at that time was that he would be back for a third tour.