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War Stories

Interview with Lee Burgess

William Keller

John A. Adams ’71 Center for Military History and Strategic Analysis. Cold War Oral History Project Interview with Col. Leland Burgess
by Cadet William Keller, September 27, 2005 ©Adams Center, Virginia Military Institute
About the interviewer: Cadet William Keller (06') plans to commission in the U.S. Army as a Helicopter pilot.
Cadet Keller resides in Soldotna, Alaska.

Related Information: Book Article & Letter 19 Feb 1968

Keller: The following interview is being conducted for the John A. Adams ’71 Center for Military History and Strategic Analysis as part of the requirements for History 387—History of Air Power. Interviewer is William Keller. The interviewee is Col. Leland Burgess. Today’s date if September 27, 2005. We are meeting in the projection room of Preston Library.

Burgess: Well, I was commissioned at the University of Alabama as a 2nd lieutenant of artillery in May of 1965. I entered active duty to go to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma in February of 1966 where I underwent Artillery Basic Training. When I finished up at Ft. Sill I entered Primary Helicopter School at Ft. Walters, Texas and then I finished up with the Advanced Helicopter Training at Ft. Rucker, Alabama and went to Vietnam in July of 1967.

Keller: Did you graduate through ROTC, sir, or were you OCS?

Burgess: No, I graduated through ROTC.

Keller: O.K. sir. So you obviously volunteered for service in the Vietnam War then?

Burgess: Well, at that particular time things were looking up and Bob McNamara and John Kennedy said, “Well, it looks like we’re going to have all the troops home by Christmas.” They just didn’t specify the exact year. So it turned out that instead of being 1965 or 1966, I think it turned out to be around 1972. I did volunteer. I was an only child and could have gotten a deferment for that reason, but my dad
and my uncles, on my dad’s side of the family, all graduated from Clemson when it was a military school. My dad was in World War II all the way from North Africa into Italy, Normandy, the liberation of Paris, etc. so it just came naturally to me that that was something I had an obligation to do.

Keller: Yes, sir. I can certainly understand where you’re coming from because my father served as well. Did you, initially, aim to be a helicopter pilot, sir, or is that something you decided once you got in?

Burgess: What actually happened – there was an ROTC Flight Training Program that was at the end of my junior year of ROTC at the University of Alabama and the military would pay for you to see if you have the aptitude to fly. You could get your private pilot’s license. So I thought that would be a real neat thing to do. It would be nice to have a private pilot’s license Well, lo and behold, a bunch of us did it and a bunch of us got one-way tickets to flight school and went on to Vietnam to fly helicopters over there. Now it wasn’t something that I intended to do, but it was something I really didn’t mind. I didn’t want to walk around over there on the ground. I’d much rather fly above it than to have to get out and do my bit slogging through rice paddies and that sort of thing.

Keller: That’s certainly understandable, sir. Speaking of your flight training – your transition to Vietnam – did you find that flight training in the Army was adequate for what you would face in Vietnam, sir?

Burgess: Well, are you talking about in Army Flight School?

Keller: Yes sir.

Burgess: I thought the training was excellent, really, but there’s no way you can simulate somebody actually firing at you and your aircraft taking hits. I remember the first time that I was fired at. I could see the individual on the ground and I could see the tracers coming up and that’s when it finally dawned on me that there were people down there that were aiming at me and they were trying to kill me. It’s really hard to simulate that.

Keller: Absolutely, sir. Operational experience is quite different from anything you get in basic training. Was your primary mission medevac, sir, or what kind of missions did you fly in Vietnam?

Burgess: As I indicated before, I was assigned to the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry and that unit was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, and we were stationed at a place called Cu Chi. Cu Chi is about 25 miles northwest of Saigon in what, now, is Ho Chi Minh City. It sat right on Highway 1 that went up to the Cambodian border. The 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry was given, as one of its missions – we were the division reaction force in the event that Thompson Air Base was attacked. I was assigned, initially, as a pilot to what was called the Light Scouts, and if you will think of a cavalry squadron back out west during the Indian wars, we would be the Indian scouts that would go out in these light observation helicopters. It was our job to find and fix the enemy and, at that particular point, we would try to get some heavier ordnance up there to do something about it. All we carried on our H-23s was a 30 caliber machine gun mounted on the skid, another 30 caliber mounted in the door, and we just sat on a quarter inch steel plate under the seat, generally flying with a crew that consisted of a pilot and a gunner. We normally did a dawn patrol and a last light patrol, checking out the highway from Cu Chi to the Cambodian border and then back from the Cambodian border up to the edge of the Michelin rubber plantation and then back into our base camp area at Cu Chi. Cu Chi was located just south of an area called the Iron Triangle and we were southeast of war zone D. I guess it was about 70 miles up to the Cambodian border, but it was our job to go out and fix the enemy and also to run those first light patrols and last light patrols.

Keller: So, sir, you say you flew the H-23. When, exactly, did you switch over to the UH-1?

Burgess: Well, as far as the UH-1, we flew those in flight school but we flew the H-23 in the Primary Helicopter School at Ft. Walters. That was kind of a trainer but the H-23 that I flew in Vietnam did have a supercharged engine on it. It was the G model and had a lot more power than the one I’d flown at Ft. Walters, Texas. But the Advanced Helicopter School that we did at Rucker, we flew the Huey’s, the Charlie and Delta models. So, when I got to Vietnam, I certainly hoped to be flying the Hueys. I wanted, primarily, to fly gun ships, but instead I got assigned to the Light Scout section and that’s what I flew most of the time. During the Tet Offensive, I didn’t have any aircraft left because they’d all been either damaged by rocket and mortar fire or shot down. I would go up and fly second seat because we had a shortage of pilots in both Charlie and Delta model Hueys.

Keller:: You mentioned quite a bit about being a scout and just doing all different kinds of missions. Certainly Vietnam was known, perhaps, as the helicopter war – the first time helicopters were ever used on such a large scale. Did you or any of the other pilots have any feelings about the helicopter’s primary role? Were you asked to do any things you thought were a little bit above and beyond your capabilities or did you feel pretty comfortable in your role?

Burgess: All of us were frustrated fighter pilots. We envisioned ourselves as being capable of doing a lot of things and when you’re 21 or 25 or 24 or something like that, you don’t really see that you have any limitations at all. The H-23s, when I initially got there, were primarily used for patrol, but within the first 30 days that I was there we heard of the 1st Cav using the Scout or the H-23s in a totally different mission, which was screening for infantry troops on the ground and doing detailed searches at tree-top level. Also we flew under the tops of the trees, up waterways, to see if we could find sampans that were hidden where they might be transporting ammunition. We carried, like I said, the skid-mounted 30 caliber, a 30 caliber mounted on a bungee cord in the door that was fired by the gunner and then, later, depending upon the mission, we might also have the crew chief fly with us, and it was his job to drop hand grenades and smoke grenades. He also carried an M-79 grenade launcher. So we tried to pack as much ordnance as we could on those 23s, but any time we put troops out on the ground, we would always have a team of H-23s or Light Scouts, as we were called, up there to screen for those troops on the ground. From where we were, we could see people who were running to trench lines or running to a spider hole and we could vector the forces on the ground to where they were. We could also keep our men from getting ambushed. The entire time that we did that, we never lost a soldier. Any time we put troops on the ground. The one time we put troops on the ground and didn’t use a Light Scout team, we got ambushed by a company, probably two companies, of VCs, NVA during the Tet Offensive. We lost several killed and over a dozen severely wounded. Those guys certainly appreciated having eyes up there that close and having people flying around, watching out for their back side and watching out for their flanks to keep them from getting ambushed.

Keller: So it was the general consensus that the helicopters for close air support was fairly effective, sir?

Burgess: Oh, absolutely. When we got the Cobras in, it was really fast. It carried a lot of armament but it didn’t see nearly as much as the H-23s and the UH-1s. Most of your targets were spotted, not by the pilot, but by the crew that was looking out the sides and underneath the helicopters. That’s where most of the things would be picked up.

Keller: At any time, sir, did you, yourself, personally, come under fire?

Burgess: Oh Lord yes. I was shot down about the third week of the Tet Offensive over there. As far as my aircraft, I did take hits on several other occasions, but I got knocked down in the middle of a Viet Cong base camp in late February of 1968 and had to do some escape and evasion with my crew in order to get out of there. I was pretty severely wounded and I took a round in the upper right arm that shattered about three inches of the bone. My crew chief took a round right through his knee which shattered his knee, and he was unconscious. The third person, who was the gunner, was o.k., but we crashed right in the middle of their base camp. When they hit us I think I was about 10 to 12 feet off the ground.

Keller: Was this a common occurrence, sir – helicopters going down? It seems helicopters are fairly vulnerable to small arms fire. Was this a common occurrence, sir?

Burgess: Well, I was over there and flew combat missions just about every single day that I was there. This was the only time that I was shot down. I do know some medevac pilots that were going into a very hot LZ – one that I was in flight school with – he was shot down three times in one day. The entire time that I was there, which was from July of 1967 until late February of 1968, we lost one aircraft and a crew of four, and we lost that to what we all suspect was friendly fire. If you abided by the rules, the tactics that you were taught, and adhered to the principles that you learned in flight school and that you learned over there, that you also picked up from the more experienced pilots, things went pretty well. We didn’t have wounded pilots and we didn’t have lost aircraft and that sort of thing.

Now the Tet Offensive was a different situation. The first night of the Tet Offensive, when I went to bed that night I had nine H-23s that were flyable and in the rocket and mortar attack that ensued that morning around 1:00, I ended up with only two flyable the next morning. That doesn’t mean they were all destroyed, but they had holes in the rotor blades or a hole in the transmission or in the engine that would have to be repaired. That one cut us down pretty badly, and then the next morning I lost one H-23 around 9:30 and the other one around 11:00 that morning, so technically, at that point, my section of Light Scouts was out of the war until we got some replacements in, as far as repaired aircraft. At that point our pilots went and flew the Hueys with the other sections.

Keller: You mentioned earlier, sir, about the close air support and how effective that was. According to the classic stereotype the pilots set all the sky while the ground pounders do most of the dirty work. Did you sense any of this animosity from your fellow servicemen?

Burgess: We had an infantry platoon assigned to us and, like I say, everything that we did was in support of those guys on the ground. At a reunion recently that we had, I had the infantry platoon leader come up to me, give me a big bear hug and tell me that if it hadn’t been for me, he wouldn’t have attended this party or any others because I was directly responsible for saving his life and lives of most of his men. So, yeah, it might have been a bit more glorious but not the way we did it. We weren’t the Spitfire pilots in the battle of Britain or anything like that. We got right in there and hopped the rice paddy dykes and flew the tree tops and down on the deck with the best of them.

Keller: Essentially, how many missions did you fly during your time in Vietnam?

Burgess: Well, it would just strictly be an estimate, but there were very few days that I didn’t fly and I was there from July through the end of February. The most number of combat hours that I flew in one day was 13 and that meant coming back and getting refueled and rearmed on four separate occasions.

Keller: Sir, I mentioned earlier how the helicopter came to fruition in Vietnam as an effective tool of the U.S. military. How do you see the arm in the future? Do you think it’s going to be a viable part of the military for a long time to come?

Burgess: I think all you’ve got to do is look at the results of what is going on in Iraq, what went on in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. I think those helicopters over there proved their worth as far as being a gun platform to destroy enemy armor, to do the observations that are required. A lot of things you can see from 25,000 or 30,000 feet, but a lot of it you have to get a lot closer. The ability, with the helicopter, to pick up troops and move them in wherever they’re needed in a short period of time, I think, is going to make the helicopter invaluable in combat operations for a long, long time to come.

Keller: I couldn’t agree more. Myself, being a future aviation officer, I look forward to, perhaps, those challenges. I’ve sort of reached the end of my questions, sir. Is there anything else you’d like to add, perhaps, that I missed?

Burgess: Well, you know, I wouldn’t take anything in the world for my service over there. The day that I was shot down I did not think I was going to get out of there alive because, like I said, we had to do some escape and evasion and they couldn’t find us. Finally, one of the pilots spotted us down there and the first report that went in was there were two killed and one wounded, when actually it was two of us wounded and one killed. We just figured there was no way we were going to get out of there because we knew the area that we had been shot down in. We knew how many enemy troops were in there. They had tried to cut us off from any escape and we had managed to get out, just in time, into an old abandoned rice field where we set up what kind of perimeter we could. I certainly thought, when that day came, that I was going to be one of those that somebody was going to knock on my parents’ door and I was very much concerned about how my mother was going to take that. But, here I am today, some 40 years later, talking to someone who I hope never has to go through that, and that would be you. If the time comes, I’m sure you’ll be able to do what you need to do.

Keller: Absolutely, sir.

Burgess: I can tell you one thing. Being a helicopter pilot and being an Army aviator – that’s certainly a place where you can hang your butt out and if you like some decorations there will certainly be opportunities to pick up one or two here or there. Take that from me as well. I was fortunate enough to make it back, as I’ve indicated, but I ended up with a Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, Vietnamese Cross, etc. etc. I’d trade all of those for some of my friends that I left over there but, you know, it’s something that somebody’s got to do and I’m very proud of it.
Keller: As it should be sir. Thank you very much for your time. I certainly appreciate it and all of us here at VMI appreciate you sharing your experiences with others. This will be an invaluable tool for future scholars writing research papers and the like.

Burgess: Good luck to you young man.

Keller: Thank you, again, very much sir.

©Adams Center, Virginia Military Institute; article used with permission of Col Burgess.