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Features >> Veterans' Stories >> Schueckler

Jim Schueckler,
Page
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PCI staff and Donut Dollies at the Huey.
Related Links
The Moving Wall Home Page
192nd Assault Helicopter Company
Jim Schueckler's Website

When we reached the mess hall, the cooks were still there, preparing for Christmas Day. The mess sergeant replied: "Do you have a truck with you? We have a surplus of food because so many guys went home early." One pilot went to get the maintenance truck while the rest of us checked dates on cans and cartons of food. Then we drove to the infantry mess hall where we accepted four cases of freeze-dried foods. The medic at the dispensary gave us bandages and dressings.

We tied down the pile of booty in the Huey. After returning the truck, the four pilots walked together back to our hooch. One looked at his watch and said, "Hey guys! It's midnight. Merry Christmas!"

My alarm clock startled me out of a deep sleep. A check with my wristwatch verified the time, but something was wrong. There was no shouting, no rumble of trucks, no roar of propellers and rotors. Mornings were usually bustling with the sounds of men and machines preparing for the daily business of war, but today there were no such sounds. I thought to myself, "Is this what peace sounds like?"

In the shower building, Mike and I talked about what our families would be doing today on the other side of the world. As all short timers do, I reminded Mike that in just two weeks I would be going home, my year in Vietnam over. My wife promised me another Christmas celebration, with decorated tree and wrapped presents. I would be also be meeting another Mike for the first time, my son, now only a few months old.

After breakfast, the others went to the flight line while I called for a weather briefing. When I reached the helicopter, Mike was doing the preflight inspection and had just climbed up to the top of the Huey. Together, we checked the main rotor hub and the "Jesus nut" that holds the rotor on the helicopter. Everything was fine; we were ready to fly. We took off and headed for the mountains.

It always felt good to fly with this crew; we were a finely tuned team. The rugged and muscular Lee looked every bit like a cowboy from his hometown in Bascom County, Wyoming; hence his nickname "Bad Bascom." He was the crew chief of this Huey and did all the daily maintenance on it; it was his "baby." With Mike as copilot and Dave as door gunner, we had taken that helicopter into and out of many difficult situations, from landing supplies on a windy mountain top to extracting recon teams from small clearings while taking enemy fire. The radio call sign of the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company was Polecat; we were Polecat Three Five Six and proud of it. This day was beginning to feel even better because we were going to use our combat skills for a mission that seemed so unrelated to war.

I decided to climb higher than usual in the smooth morning air. As we left the jungle plains along the coast, the green mountains of the Central Highlands rose up to meet us. On the plateau, a thick blanket of fog lay like cotton under a Christmas tree. It spilled over between the peaks in slow, misty, waterfalls. In the rising sunlight the mountain tops cast long shadows on the fog. The beauty and serenity of the scene were dazzling. Had I noticed this before? I think I had, but today the gorgeous scenery wasn't a backdrop for the unexpected horror of war.

The mess hall had been quiet. The airfield was quiet. The radios were quiet. We weren't even chattering on the intercom as we usually did. Our minds were all with different families, somewhere back home, thousands of miles away. Everything was quiet and peaceful. It felt very, very, strange. Was this the first day of a lasting peace, or just the eye in a hurricane of war?

As our main rotor slowed down after we landed at Da Lat, a gray-haired Lieutenant Colonel walked up to the Huey. "Merry Christmas! I'm Colonel Beck. We have a busy day planned, my men are spread out all over this province, and we're going to take mail, hot turkey, and pumpkin pies to every one of them!" He handed me a map that had our cross-stitched route already carefully drawn on it. His distinguished look turned to a big grin as he added, "Oh — would you guys like to have some Donut Dollies with us today?" Four heads with flight helmets were eagerly nodding "YES" as the two young ladies got out of a jeep.

Donut Dollies were American Red Cross volunteers, college graduates in their early twenties. Although no longer distributing donuts like their namesakes of World War I, they were still in the service of helping the morale of the troops. At large bases they managed recreation centers but they also traveled to the smaller units in the field for short visits. For millions of GIs they represented the girlfriend, sister, or wife back home. Over the Huey's intercom, Colonel Beck introduced Sue, with the short, dark, hair and Ann, a brunette, the taller one.

Soon we were heading towards the mountains with a Huey full of mail, food, Christmas cargo, and two American young women. For the soldiers who had been living off Vietnamese food and canned Army rations at lonely, isolated outposts, these touches of home would be a welcome surprise.

As we approached the first compound Colonel Beck, by radio, told the men on the ground that we were going to make it snow. Sue and Ann sprinkled laundry soap flakes out of the Huey as we flew directly over a small group of American and Vietnamese soldiers who must have thought we were crazy. Several of them were rubbing their eyes as we came back to land. I will never know if it was emotion or if they just had soap in their eyes.

The three Americans came over to the Huey as we shut it down. Ann gave each of them a package from the Red Cross and Sue called out names to distribute the mail. After about 15 minutes of small talk, Colonel Beck announced, "We have a lot more stops to make" and got back into the Huey. The soldiers stood there silently, staring at us as we started up, hovered, and then disappeared into the sky.

At the next outpost, Colonel Beck left us so he could talk privately with the local officials. The crew and I didn't mind escorting the Donut Dollies. It was easy to see how happy the soldiers were to talk with them. I wondered how Sue and Ann were feeling. Their job was to cheer up other people on what may have been their own first Christmas away from home; if they were lonely or sad, they never let it show. Throughout the day, the same scene was replayed at other small compounds. Some soldiers talked excitedly to the girls, while others would just stand quietly and stare, almost in shock to see American women visiting them out in the boonies.

Finally, with the official Macvee work finished, we were above the hospital at Dam Pao. Mike landed us a few hundred feet from the main building. Several men and women came out, carrying folding stretchers. They first showed surprise that we were not bringing an injured new patient, and then joy when we showed them the food and medical supplies. Mike opened the ammo can full of money and said, "Merry Christmas from the Polecats and Tigersharks of the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company." One of the women began to cry and then hugged Mike. Next >>

Jim Schueckler
"Soon we were heading towards the mountains with a Huey full of mail, food, Christmas cargo, and two American young women."

Tom Fowler
"Fortunately, the firefight, such as it was, did not last long and nobody inside our company area was hurt."

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The average cost per B-52 mission during Vietnam was $41,421, with an average of 27 tons of munitions dropped.
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