The Little Unit that Could, by COL Retired Doug Moore

Mount fuji at Lake kawaguchiko with cherry blossom in Yamanashi near Tokyo, Japan.

During the Vietnam War, the major focus was on helicopter ambulance units deployed in-country, and that is understandable. There was another unit that performed magnificently during that timeframe and went largely unnoticed, except by the men who were assigned and by the many thousands of patients transported by its crews.

      Prior to 1966, hospitalization capability in Vietnam was limited and there were no off-shore hospitals close-by, except for a small facility at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. Critically wounded patients sent to Clark were stabilized and then placed on aircraft for the long flight to the States. When the death rate rose to an unacceptable level, it was believed long flights were to blame, so medical planners began looking for intermediate facilities.

      Japan was the obvious choice, because it was a routine fuel stop for aircraft flying between Vietnam and the States, and three small hospitals were already located there. The Japanese Government offered more real estate, so construction began to expand existing facilities and to build three additional hospitals. When finished, the Army had hospitals at Camp Drake, Camp Oji, Camp Zama, and Kishine Barracks. The Air Force had a hospital next to the flight line at Tachikawa, and the Navy had one at Yokosuka. For those not familiar with the area, those six hospitals were scattered in a wide arc around the western side of the greater Tokyo area, with Camp Oji being in the northern outskirts of Tokyo, and Yokosuka being about 50 miles south of the city

      Shortly after patients began arriving in Japan, General Johnny K. Waters, Commander of the U.S. Army Pacific Command (USARPAC), stopped at Tachikawa during a visit to the area. Some may recall him as being the son-in-law of General George S. Patton. As a young officer in WWII, Waters was captured by the Germans in the North African desert and held for a long time in a POW camp at Hammelburg, Germany. General Patton sent Colonel Creighton Abrams (former Army Chief of Staff) on a particularly dangerous mission to free the POWs in that camp. General Patton was later accused of doing it to rescue his son-in-law, but recent historians have proven that to be a false charge.

      While waiting for his aircraft to be refueled, General Waters saw an ambulance bus arriving and asked what it was doing there. He was told the bus held patients wounded in Vietnam who had been treated at Yokosuka and were waiting for a flight to the States. General Waters walked to the bus and asked how they’d been treated. All responded favorably about their medical care, but several men complained bitterly about the extremely painful bus ride to and from Yokosuka over horrendous Japanese roads; a trip that could take five to six hours. When he got back to Hawaii, General Waters set the wheels in motion to station a helicopter ambulance unit in Japan. At the time, there were no more units available in the States, so the medical planners had to activate another that was designated as the 587th Medical Detachment (Hel Amb).

      Dave Dryden and I had just arrived home from our first tour in Vietnam, and much to our surprise, we were told we would be attending a shortened version of the Officers Career Course designed for Reserve Component Officers, instead of the much longer course designed for Active Duty Officers. When we asked why, we were told the personnel guys would visit soon and would explain. Shortly after we began the course, the personnel guys from Washington arrived at Fort Sam Houston and asked Dave to take command of the new unit and me to go as the operations officer.

      Jeff Grider had also just returned from his first tour in Vietnam and was told he would be going to Japan, too. Jeff deployed shortly before us to get the activation started at Camp Zama’s Rankin Army Airfield. Early on, there were some difficulties, because we had to start from scratch. Our unit was initially housed in an old Quonset hut on the airfield that leaked like a sieve when it rained, but an unused fire station next to the aircraft parking ramp was soon renovated for us, and it was beautiful when finished. We also didn’t have a complete maintenance set, but I met a Navy officer on the way over who was being assigned as maintenance officer for a CH-46 unit at nearby Atsugi Naval Air Station, so he loaned us tools when we needed them.

      Our aircraft presented the biggest challenge, because we received three UH-1B Hueys that had been left behind in Hawaii by the 25th Infantry Division when they deployed to Vietnam. The aircraft had been used in a door-gunner training program. In short, they were old and had had their guts flown out. They looked awful with ding marks all along the fuselage caused by bullet casings being ejected from the door guns while in flight.

      In short, we had tired, old airplanes in an environment that demanded all the power we could get. We had to make steep approaches and takeoffs to clear obstacles at all the hospitals, except for the ones at Tachikawa and Yokosuka. The 106th General Hospital at Kishine Barracks in Yokohama was the absolute worst. We had to land on a narrow street in the middle of a multi-story hospital complex, and if there hadn’t been a war going on at the time, there was no way the safety people would have allowed us to operate that way.

      To make it worse, the hospital sat in a bowl shaped depression, and there were only two ways to get in or out of the landing area. There was a Japanese housing area on the hill overlooking one of the approaches, and a huge set of high-tension wires at the other end. On take-offs and landings, we could reach out and almost touch the hospital buildings on either side. Operations at Kishine demanded careful flying to avoid disaster, and our tired, old airplanes didn’t help.

      We hadn’t been there long when Jeff Grider had a complete engine failure while flying a full load of patients along the mountainous coastline near Yokosuka. When his engine quit, he turned inland and began looking for a place to land. The only flat spot for miles around was a green on a Japanese golf course, so he turned toward it. Several golfers were standing on the green and looked up to see Jeff’s helicopter coming at them. They didn’t understand he was making an emergency landing, so they just stood there. When he saw the golfers weren’t going to move out of his way, Jeff banked sharply and planted his skids into the side of the embankment where the green was located. The embankment was probably 10-12 feet high at the point where he hit, and the impact caused the main rotor blades to flex down and cut off the tail boom, but no one was injured.

      As an aside, many may remember the Army form (DA Form 285) that must be completed when accidents occur. It requires a statement as to what can be done to prevent future accidents. After reading our report, one of the U.S. Army Japan (USARJ) safety people suggested we place loudspeakers on our helicopters with a recording in Japanese stating, “We’ve had an engine failure. Please get out of the way.” 

      In the early days, casualties were flown from Vietnam to Tachikawa on old propeller-driven planes, mostly C-54s and C-124s. The Air Force established a Casualty Staging Facility (CSF) at Tachikawa, and our mission was to fly patients from the CSF to the outlying hospitals and return those who would be going to the States for further medical care. When C-141s entered the inventory in late 1967, the CSF was moved into modular buildings at Yokota Air Force Base, because the runway at Tachikawa was not long enough to accommodate jets. Yokota was not far from Tachikawa, so the effect on our flight times was minimal.

      After we’d been in Japan for a short time, we learned General Waters would be visiting again, so Dave took that opportunity to ask Colonel (Dr.) Kenneth Orr, the recently arrived Commander of the U.S. Army Medical Command Japan, to speak with him about the poor condition of our helicopters. Upon his return to Hawaii, General Waters directed his staff to get us new aircraft, and a couple of months later, a small aircraft carrier pulled into Yokohama Bay with five UH-1Ds for us. That meant we could carry six litter patients, compared to three in the UH-1Bs. That proved to be a lifesaver, because the war in Vietnam was heating up, and the daily patient load kept increasing. Besides, it was exciting to get brand new aircraft with the smell of new cars.

      There was some interesting posturing going on during our first several months there. At the time, there were very few Army personnel in Japan, but a major command headquarters called U.S. Army, Japan (USARJ), was being retained mostly for political purposes. It could be summed up as being like an old southern plantation when we arrived. In other words, it was “sleepyville.” The commanding general was a two-star Chemical Corps officer, so that tells you the level of importance it enjoyed.

      Our unit was located on a high hill overlooking the main post at Camp Zama, and we shared the airfield with the USARJ VIP flight detachment. There was a beautiful golf course bordering one side of the airfield, and several sets of senior officer quarters next to us. The USARJ detachment had an old twin-engine U-8 airplane and three OH-23 helicopters. The U-8 was used to shuttle passengers back and forth to Okinawa and Korea, and the helicopters were used to fly passengers from Camp Zama to downtown Tokyo and other military locations on the Kanto Plain surrounding Tokyo.

      Shortly after we arrived, the USARJ staff began inquiring about using our aircraft to transport passengers, because they were facing an increasing number of senior officers, congressmen, and other VIPs who wanted to visit the hospitals or use Japan as a stop-over on the way to Vietnam. The VIP unit’s OH-23s could carry only two passengers, so they could be overwhelmed at times. We wanted to be good neighbors and offered to help when we could, but made sure everyone understood our primary mission was to transport patients. We flew lots of VIP missions for them and allowed members of the USARJ staff to ride with us when they needed to go someplace around the Kanto Plain. We’d drop them off while enroute to Tachikawa or Yokota and then continue with our primary mission. Since we usually had aircraft on the go all day, we would stop by and pick them up when they finished their work or meetings. That seemed to work well, and the USARJ staff really appreciated it, because it kept them from spending long hours on heavily congested roads.

      When our new UH-1Ds arrived, the USARJ Chief of Staff took more of an interest in using our aircraft, and it almost caused a problem. It rained for several days after they arrived, so Sergeant Chet Gandy finally pulled one of the aircraft into the hangar to let it dry and painted red crosses on the doors, nose, top, and bottom. When the paint was dry, Sergeant Gandy moved it back to the parking ramp. I recall seeing the helicopter setting there and remember it shining like a new diamond.

      At the time, the USARJ Chief of Staff was a Colonel Pillsbury, and his house was located just across a wire fence from our flight line. He must have come home for some reason and saw the freshly painted aircraft parked near his dining room window. About 2 p.m., I received a call from a major in the Chief’s office telling me to get the red crosses painted off that aircraft before nightfall and not to paint any more of them. I told Dave about the phone call, and we jumped into my tiny Japanese Hino car and raced down the hill to the main compound where our headquarters was located.

      As I mentioned earlier, Colonel (Dr.) Kenneth Orr had recently taken command of the Medical Command and had been notified he would be promoted to brigadier general in a few months. Colonel Orr seemed to like us instantly and appreciated how well we were performing our mission. In fact, he began calling us his “Good Guys” and referred to us by that name until his untimely death.

      Anyhow, Dave and I rushed to Colonel Orr’s office. After hearing about the phone call, he grabbed his hat and dashed across the street to see MG Fellenz, the USARJ commander. He returned a short time later and his face was as red as a beet, so we expected the worst. Colonel Orr looked straight at Dave and said quietly, “Get back up the hill and paint red crosses on the rest of those aircraft as quickly as possible.”

      Needless to say, we raced up the hill as fast as my old Hino would go and SGT Gandy began painting the other aircraft. Fortunately, the weather began to clear, and they were finished in a couple of days. From that time on, the issue of who controlled our aircraft didn’t come up again, but we continued to help the USARJ staff with non-medical missions. We flew movie stars, congressmen, senior military officers, and other VIPs, because we felt it to be part of our mission. On occasion, we had another unusual mission, and that was transporting hundreds of pounds of military script from the printing plant in Tokyo to Yokota Air Force Base where the money was flown on to Vietnam. We joked about how easy it would have been to become instant millionaires, if our helicopters had a better fuel range and some nearby country would let us spend military script there.

      It was years later before Dave and I learned what happened when Colonel Orr went to see MG Fellenz. We certainly weren’t going to ask while in Japan, but after he retired, I had an occasion to call General Orr about something else, and we had a long and enjoyable conversation about the good old days. I took the opportunity to ask him about his encounter with the USARJ Commander, and he laughed as he described it. He said he ran past the secretary and went straight into Fellenz’s office where he said, “If the order to paint over the red crosses came from you, I want you to know I plan to be on the next aircraft headed for Hawaii to see General Waters!” That killed any further discussion about our fate.

      On the lighter side, I’ve been asked several times about the VIPs we flew while there and whether any were particularly memorable. Martha Ray was there several times visiting the hospitals, and we saw Jane Russell, Patti Page, Ann Margaret, Nancy Sinatra, and many others. As I recall, Si Simmons spent a couple of days flying the Reverend Billy Graham around during his visit. The NCO who ran the Officer’s Club at Camp Zama became a friend, because we gave him rides to visit other clubs he was responsible for. He managed to get several of the entertainers to put on shows at our club. He also helped stage one heck of a promotion party for Dave and me when we were promoted to major. Our entertainment that night was Connie Francis, Jane Russell, and Patti Paige.

      Other officers began arriving shortly after Dave and me, and soon there was Dave Dryden, Jay McGowan, Jeff Grider, Bud Bowen, Bob Mock, Si Simmons, John Hosley, Doug Moore, and a couple of warrant officers who had been patients in Japan who were then assigned to us. Before long, the workload really picked up, and we began flying seven days a week and many nights.

      As I mentioned earlier, our airfield was located on a hill overlooking main post, but lower ranking officers like us lived about five miles away on a different installation, so the issue of how to handle lunch became a problem. We could either drive home through heavy traffic or slip down the hill to the Officer’s Club less than a mile away. The latter seemed to be the best alternative, so we checked with the Club NCO to see whether flight suits could be worn. He told us it wouldn’t be a problem, but the Chief of Staff, Colonel Pillsbury, intervened. That meant we had to keep another uniform at work and change clothes to eat lunch at the Club.

      A short time later, Major Howard (Howie) Dean arrived to command the USARJ VIP flight detachment. Howie was a real character and quickly became a friend. He was a combat arms officer and knew the medics well, because much of his left foot had been shot off in Vietnam. Howie had spent several months receiving care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Because of the prosthesis he wore, Howie couldn’t fly his U-8 airplane alone, because he couldn’t depress the brake pedal hard enough to stop on the short runway at Camp Zama. Bud Bowen, Jay McGowan, and I were fixed-wing qualified, too, so we took turns flying with him. After we got to know him better, we appealed to him to raise the flight suit issue with the command group, and he got the policy changed somehow.

      I’ll be the first to admit that we brought a lot of grief on ourselves while we were there. In my mind, aviators are like paratroopers. They may be okay as individuals, but as a group, they can be unbearable. After Howie Dean got the flight suit policy changed, he and his two or three pilots began joining us for lunch daily. We’d pile into several cars, and the jokes and war stories would begin as we drove down the hill to the Club. It didn’t take long before we laid claim to a large table in the center of the dining room, and the waitresses began saving it for us.

      When we would walk in as a group, the normally sedate atmosphere of the Officer’s Club changed immediately. We were loud and boisterous, but kept it in good taste most of the time. The other officers and civilians who used the Club seemed to like us. They understood we were having harmless fun, and I believe some of them envied our way of letting off steam and getting rid of stress. They knew all of us had been to Vietnam; that we were flying our butts off while there in Japan; and that we would be going back to Vietnam shortly. While most of them had not been “Down South” as we called Vietnam, no one seemed to be offended by our actions, except for the Chief of Staff.

      As they were entering or leaving, many of the other Club patrons would stop by our table to listen to our jokes or to pass along words of good cheer. Colonel Pillsbury always sat in the far corner of the dining room with his select group of friends and spent much of the time glaring at us. One day, we were having a particularly loud discussion about something and didn’t see him coming. As he walked past our table, he snorted, “Aviators, huh!” and walked out.

      We paid him back for his comment! You know the loud “wop, wop, wop” sound a Huey makes and how you can increase its intensity by bottoming the pitch and then turning sharply to the right. The runway at Camp Zama ran generally north and south, and Colonel Pillsbury’s house was located about 75 meters off the south end, so we passed right by his house when landing to the north or taking off to the south.

      After he made his “Aviators, huh!” remark, we would often fly down the runway at night, headed toward the south end where his house was located. Just before reaching the end of the runway, we’d bottom the pitch and suck the aircraft around in a tight, right hand turn. I’m sure his china and chandeliers rattled wildly each time we did that, and I can only imagine how annoying it must have been at 2:00 in the morning. He complained about the noise a few times, and we’d lighten up for a while. Then a Navy aircraft carrier had a terrible accident in the South China Sea. One of its ammunition bunkers caught fire and the succeeding explosion burned several sailors quite badly.

      As I recall, nearly 40 sailors received initial treatment in the Philippines and were flown to Japan on a Special Air Mission (SAM) flight. They arrived about 10:00 at night, and we launched three helicopters to transport them to the Burn Center at Kishine Barracks. After delivering all the patients to the hospital, we fell into a loose trail formation and headed home. I may be mistaken, but I believe it was Si, Jeff, and I piloting the three aircraft. Along the way, someone suggested waking up Colonel Pillsbury, so we went screaming down the runway and made really tight turns before landing.

      By that time, Colonel Orr had been promoted to brigadier general and lived across the street from Colonel Pillsbury, so I wasn’t surprised when he called me early the next morning and asked, “What were you guys doing out so late last night?” 

      I replied, “Sir, we were transporting the burn patients who came off the carrier.” 

      General Orr said, “Okay.”

      I then asked, “Why sir? Is there anything wrong?”

      He replied, “Nothing is wrong. Colonel Pillsbury is upset about the noise again, but I’ll take care of him.”

      We didn’t hear any more from Colonel Pillsbury during the remaining few months he spent in Japan, but we continued to rattle his dishes on occasion. We shouldn’t have done that. It was childish, but a lot of fun.

      About a year after we got there, a combat arms major general arrived to command USARJ. He had a clear understanding of our mission and had nothing but praise for the work we were doing. His house was located less than a hundred yards from the flight line. We’d often find him sitting in our operations shack talking with the radio operator or walking along the flight line when we returned from missions, particularly at night and on weekends. We believed we could do no wrong from that time on.  

      Our workload increased significantly in 1967 and 1968, as the huge build-up of U.S. forces in Vietnam entered its final stages. The infamous TET Offensive of 1968 really kept us hopping and stretched our capability to its limit. As I recall, the TET attacks began on the night of 30 January 1968, and hospitals across Vietnam were quickly overflowing with casualties. We felt the surge on 7 February when C-141s began arriving, nose to tail, at Yokota. We transported 7400 patients during the month of February and almost that many in March. Many of them were Marines wounded in those awful battles around Hue and along the northern border. Some were still wearing dirty fatigues and muddy combat boots and had nasty combat dressings covering their wounds. They were being sent out of Vietnam on anything moving and soon wound up in our laps in Japan.

      The TET Offensive also kept us busy from another perspective. The 406th Medical Laboratory was co-located with the Camp Zama hospital, which was about 8-10 miles from our airfield. The 406th was a blood processing facility, and we hauled tons of blood for them to Tachikawa and Yokota for shipment to Vietnam. During the TET Offensive, they kept us particularly busy, and if my memory is correct, we could load 45 boxes of blood in a UH-D. As an aside, the 406th had several sheep in a small containment area next to the hospital’s helipad. I never learned what the sheep were used for, but was told it was some sort of research project. The doctor who was responsible for the sheep never passed up an opportunity to raise hell with Dave and others of us, because he claimed our helicopters kept his sheep from breeding.   

      Anyone who has ever flown in Japan knows what the weather is like. Heavy smog, low ceilings, and minimal visibility were the order of the day during much of the year. But we had a mission to perform and found ways to press on. To get to Tachikawa and Yokota, we could always home in on their VOR and ADF, but we had nothing to help get back to our airfield. After an incident to be described later on, Bud Bowen developed a home-made approach plate to get back to Camp Zama. I remember using it a couple of times at night after I got caught in weather and couldn’t see Rankin Army Airfield until I passed right over the top of it.

      Getting to the outlying hospitals was a work in progress, and we soon learned little tricks like departing Tachikawa or Yokota on a certain heading until reaching a red-topped school house, then turning to another heading until passing over the train depot in a small town, and finally turning to another heading to get up the hill to Kishine Barracks. I think most of us got caught one or more times in snowstorms that forced us to land in a farmer’s field just short of Kishine. We then had to watch the squall clouds moving past and try to catch a quick opening to get enough altitude to clear a Japanese housing area that bordered Kishine. None of that effort was scientific and certainly didn’t meet any of the standards of aviation in those days, but it worked.

      One of the more memorable  weather experiences occurred when Jeff Grider and Bud Bowen were tasked to fly LTG Leonard Heaton (Army Surgeon General);  BG William Hamrick (Chief of the Army Medical Service Corps), and General Orr on a tour of the hospitals. Low clouds began moving into the greater Tokyo area, and Jeff kept telling General Orr that they needed to step it up, because the weather was getting bad. General Orr didn’t pay him much attention, because he wanted the Surgeon General and BG Hamrick to see all the hospitals.

      On the way back, Jeff and Bud got to the low mountains that run along the river south of Tachikawa and found them totally socked in. They knew the height of the massive power lines running along the ridge-line so they stayed high enough to avoid them, and Jeff looked down while Bud flew on instruments. Jeff then called the tower operator at Rankin Army Airfield and asked him to go outside, listen for them, and help guide them by sound. Jeff casually mentioned to Bud, “If we crash, we’d better hope we both die, because of all of the stars we have on board!”

      Jeff and the tower operator quickly improvised “sound direction system” worked. They were guided right over the center of the runway before they finally saw it. Unit commander, Dave Dryden, and the rest of us were sweating bullets until we saw their skids hit the ground and watched all five stars climb out. That experience is what caused Bud to devise the home-made approach plate mentioned earlier.

      I’m sure there are some who would disagree with me, but I believe the pilots assigned to the 587th during the 1966-68 timeframe were the most qualified and highly skilled ever assembled in one unit. None were low-time pilots, and all had lots of combat flying time in Vietnam. Their experience and flying skills allowed them to stretch the limits to get the mission done, and I don’t think we compromised safety to any great degree. I don’t believe any other group of pilots could or will match their achievements.

      Those two years in Japan proved to be the finest tour I had during 30 years of active duty. As mentioned earlier, we had great officers and men who got along like a close-knit family and worked extremely hard to support a solid mission. It was one of those rare instances where people felt good about themselves nearly every day, because we could see the end result of our efforts. Rather than subjecting critically wounded patients to a ride of several hours in a bumpy ambulance bus over horrendous Japanese roads, we moved them quickly and much more comfortably. We had an opportunity to talk with many of those patients while they were being loaded aboard our helicopters. All expressed their sincere appreciation for what we were doing. I really hated to leave, but Vietnam was beckoning again, and that initial group of us was sent back “Down South” after only two short years in Japan.

      I reviewed some workload reports recently and noted that despite the fact we only had three worn out helicopters for the first few months, we flew a total of 6450 hours during that two-year period and transported 62,525 patients. I don’t believe any unit will ever match those numbers. I hope not, because the overwhelming majority of patients we transported were badly wounded. We felt good because we could help them.

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