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War Stories

James Roy Pearson - KIA

Albert Menzi

This is a letter that was written by WO1 Albert Menzi the copilot of the Gunship aircraft when Door Gunner James Roy Pearson was killed.

It is a most honest and heartfelt letter to Roy's sister Jeanice.

See more on James Roy Pearson at his page in the KIA section.


On the morning of 4 November 1966 we were assigned a mission to escort resupply helicopters into an area where US forces were engaged with the enemy. I was the copilot of one of the two gunships and Roy was my door gunner. Before we became airborne we had to sit on the ground at Cu Chi with our engines idling and our rotors turning while the resupply helicopters were getting ready. I lit up a cigarette to spend the time and Roy, seeing that, admonished me that we weren’t suppose to be smoking during that phase of flight. I remember grumbling about it but knowing he was right, I butted it out!

When we were finally airborne and over our objective, the resupply helicopters would come in, one at a time as we circled the camp, firing into the trees and area around the camp. The Viet Cong were dug in and fired back at us. In one instance an enemy bullet came up through the helicopter, passing in front of Roy and just over the top of my head, exiting out the plexiglass window above my head. A split second before that, I had shifted myself forward to look down through the chopper’s chin bubble. That move saved my life by allowing the round to pass by just above my head. When the metal fragments showered the cockpit, one fragment struck me at the base of the back of my head. Unharmed, I was nevertheless quite jolted and since I had the flex gun’s (four M60 machine guns that were hydraulically controlled by the pilot to aim and fire) apparatus in my left hand with my finger on the trigger, I accidentally squeezed off about a half dozen rounds from the flex guns. Looking up, I saw the rounds slam into the ground right in front of our friendly troops. They were suddenly diving behind their bunkers. They got on the radio and chewed us out for firing into their positions. Since we had suffered some damage to our gunship, we had to call off the mission temporarily until we could land and inspect our ship.

Flying to a nearby Special Forces camp, we landed to inspect the aircraft. I remember shaking from the adrenalin, and while lighting up a cigarette I heard Roy say, “Hey, let me have one of those.” We chuckled about it as I lit his cigarette for him. After our crew chief inspected the ship and found no serious damage we got airborne quickly to continue the mission.

The resupply helicopters would come in from the west and depart to the west using the same flight path which was free of ground fire. For some reason there was no coordination between the resupply aircraft and us, their gun cover. I guess the pilots just wanted to get the hell out of there as fast as they could. The problem for us was that we needed to be in the correct position to lay fire down as the resupply ship exited the scene. When the final ship turned around in the LZ and hastily departed, our ship was completely out of position and my aircraft commander who was flying the gunship made a right 360 degree turn to get in position. As we rolled out of our turn our flight path took us directly toward a small wooded and brushy area between us and the friendlies. I had an intuitive, sinking gut feeling about the patch of woods and wanted to spray it down with fire, but the friendlies were just beyond. Since we were at a low altitude, there would have been some ricochets from our fire going into the friendly’s positions. We sprayed them once before and couldn’t let that happen again. All these thoughts passed through my mind in a second and so, and as I had done on previous occasions when in doubt, I held my fire. Tragically, my gut feeling proved correct. There were Viet Cong in that patch of woods, no doubt in dug out bunkers. When we passed overhead they fired several shots. The first thing I noticed was that the fuel pump warning light came on, since it was more or less in front of me. Immediately after, our crew chief announced that Roy had been hit. I turned to look and saw that he was laid over on his left side, unconscious.

We flew directly back to Cu Chi as fast as the ship could take us, landing on the hospital pad about 15 minutes later. Roy was unconscious and completely unresponsive. I remember how Roy was a muscular, well built man and how hard it was to lift him down to the litter in order to carry him into the hospital. Not wanting to leave him we stood alongside the physicians as they went to work on him. We were all in a state of shock. I remember we had to soon leave as none of us could bare watching this any further. At no time did Roy regain consciousness, although I cannot say that he did not suffer. No one will know. I remember that he was quickly transferred to another hospital at another base where he died. Perhaps he may have lingered on until the next day, hence the date of 5 November that you had received.

I remember returning to the unit in a dazed sort of way. I had to clean up, change clothes, etc. Later we went to the maintenance yard where our chopper was located in order to inspect it. I discovered the bullet hole where it entered the ship from the rear before striking Roy. I peered into it and discovered that it bore sited directly above the left pilot seat where I had been sitting. I realized then that Roy had stopped the bullet that was headed for me. Jeanice, this has haunted me my entire life. Why Roy and not me? What if I had only laid some fire down on that patch of woods forcing the VC to keep their heads down?

Some years ago I read a book written by Col. David Hackworth, a soldier’s soldier. In it he said “Only those who’ve walked that walk of life and death can understand a soldier’s ‘If I’d only’ replay of events.” At the time it gave me some comfort and so I wrote it down, eventually to share it with you. Drawing on my years as a professional pilot, when I look back on that time I wonder why there wasn’t more critical analysis of our tactics and techniques. Just the month before, we took some wounded casualties, on my ship again, while flying low level in similar hostile circumstances. Why didn’t we change our tactics then? I know that after Roy’s death we did change, staying at a much higher altitude when escorting ships in and out of LZs. At the time I was 20 years old, one of the youngest pilots in the unit. I had only been in gunships for about two months so I was fairly new to it. At the time I was too young to question the way things were done.

I regret that I didn’t personally know Roy, the man who allowed me to live. Perhaps Jeanice, you can share with me some remembrances of Roy so that we can both honor this man’s life. I would love any photos if they are digitized. You could send them as e-mail attachments.
It’s my personal belief that my previous incarnation was short lived. This time around the Universe has been merciful with me and has so far allowed my string of life to extend more fully. In times of deep contemplation and prayer I am moved to tears of thanksgiving over this blessing. I hope that Roy, wherever he is, is in a state of grace. I am deeply offended at the thought of our young men and women in uniform being sacrificed for some nebulous cause in a far distant and backwards place. Perhaps this is the nature of our dark age, to be in a state of perpetual war.