Life as a helicopter door gunner
Editor’s note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of articles profiling those who have ever served in the U.S. military, be it overseas or stateside. Every Thursday, a new profile will be published in the T-R.
GARWIN — Laverne Jackson of Garwin can sum up his experiences as a helicopter door gunner and crew chief in Vietnam in one sentence.
“I know what it is like to be scared,” he said.
For in his Army years from 1967-70, including 18 months in Vietnam, Jackson survived having a helicopter he was in shot down twice, and another one crashing due to mechanical failure.
After enlisting, Jackson was off to Fort Campbell, Ky., for basics and to helicopter school in Fort Rucker, Ala. He trained in aircraft maintenance at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga. After a 30-day leave, he flew out of Fort Lewis, Wash., for Vietnam.
As a member of Alpha Company 229th of the Helicopter 1st Cavalry Division, he met Ron Laughingwell who encouraged Jackson to come join the flight platoon with him.
“I asked Ron if he knew what all the little holes in the helicopters were from,” Jackson said. “At first he thought about it, but within two weeks we were both members of the flight platoon anyway.
“For the first month I was a door gunner while learning the ropes. I did not know what to expect when we were called on to practice a one-bird LZ assault,” Jackson said. “It was definitely my initiation into combat assault, as the pilot nearly killed us in the process — or so I thought.”
Jackson said he was made crew chief shortly after that incident, a job that he held throughout the remainder of his service.
Three incidents stick out in Jackson’s mind: the crash and the two times his “bird” was shot down.
The crash occurred over rice paddies when a transmission failed during the prelude to the Cambodian invasion. The helicopter was about 25 feet up before landing in the water. “I had to rescue the feeder pilot from under water, and then I saw the door gunner standing on the pilot’s door (clear across the helicopter). I asked what he was doing out there and he answered, ‘I can’t swim,”‘ Jackson laughed.
The first time he was in a helicopter that was shot down was as they were hauling kitchen supplies out of a rubber plantation.
“A guy kept backing into my machine gun and it was then that I noticed that I still had the safety on. Jackson recalled. At about treetop level as I reached to turn the safety off, we were barraged with enemy fire. They broke the fuel pump wire and as soon as we ran out of fuel — down we went. But our pilot was able to perform an auto rotation and we all walked away unhurt.”
The second time he was shot down was when a buddy asked him to gun for him.
“As we were making a huge right hand turn the enemy opened up on us with a 51. The shell came through the floor, hit the pilot in the elbow and jammed our throttle. As we hit the ground there were bomb craters everywhere. Two of our guys were wounded with shrapnel and the pilot lost his arm,” Jackson said.
But in 1,000 combat flight hours, Jackson feels fortunate to have never been wounded. He stated that it was quite an experience for an Iowa farm boy who had at that time never been out of the state.
Up until 1991, Jackson said he did not talk much of his wartime expierances — not even with family. But after being invited and attending a reunion of Vietnam helicopter crew members, he said his entire outlook on everything changed and he knew he had to begin talking about it.
“I went to one reunion in Charlotte, N.C., where out of 12 members that had served in Alpha Company during the Vietnam era, only one had never been a door gunner or on a mission with me,” Jackson remarked.
“In all of these years I have only missed five of the reunions. I just feel at peace after I attend and return from the gatherings.”
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