KILLEEN — Vietnam veterans of the 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment shared war experiences during a reunion in Killeen, from Thursday to Saturday.
Members of the 7th Squadron, 17th Air Cavalry Association held its annual reunion which coincided with the 50th anniversary since the unit deployed to Vietnam.
Allen Bowker, 69, from Peoria, Arizona, was enlisted and served as a scout observer aboard an OH-6 light observation helicopter. In those days, Bowker said enlisted personnel were part of the two-person crew aboard the aircraft.
Bruce Carlson, 70, from Brockton, Massachusetts, was a warrant officer during the war and was a pilot of the OH-6. Carlson and Bowker were known as “aero scouts” performing reconnaissance and rescue operations in the central highlands of Vietnam in 1969 with the squadron’s Charlie Troop.
Both men said they were closer than brothers since the experiences they endured, but their initial meeting didn’t go so well. Bowker explained that when Carlson arrived in Vietnam as a fresh young warrant officer, someone decided to play a trick on him.
“Someone didn’t like him (Carlson) and told him to go down to the scout’s hooch,” Bowker said.
During the Vietnam War, a “hooch” was slang for an improvised living space.
“I had been three days without sleeping and laying down, and just started to doze off when some horse’s (rear) comes in the scout hooch and hollers ‘attention!’,” Bowker explained.
Bowker said it was unusual for officers to be in the scout’s hooch and calling attention in it was equally absurd, so he got in Carlson’s face.
“I get right in his face and said, ‘If you didn’t have those bars on your collar we’d settle this right now’,” Bowker said.
Carlson said he removed his blouse and prepared for a fight like John Wayne.
“What else could I do? I watched John Wayne, so I took my blouse off and we started jostling and wrestling and maybe a few punches and we’re both thinking ‘would someone stop this fight for God’s sake neither of us want to go to jail’,” Bowker said jokingly.
Bowker said it seemed like the skirmish had gone on for 30 minutes when finally someone stopped them, calling the match a draw.
“We’ve been the best of friends ever since,” Bowker said.
Bowker and Carlson said the job they performed in Vietnam was created specifically for Vietnam and ended with the war as the casualty rates were too high by today’s standards.
“You wouldn’t survive,” Carlson said. “I got shot down five times — that mission can’t be flown today.”
Carlson said, as a pilot, if you survived flying scout missions for six months you had the option of not flying those missions for the remaining six months of the tour.
“It’s because your lifespan was so short,” Carlson said.
Charles Alexander, a Vietnam veteran that flew Cobra attack helicopters during the war, said more than 2,000 pilots and another 2,700 crew members died in the war, about nine percent of the total casualties.
“They gave you a revolver with six bullets, five for (the enemy) and the last one for yourself,” Alexander said.
Carlson said Alexander was his bunk mate and would fly his Cobra helicopter above Carlson’s, providing air support while he was carrying out reconnaissance missions.
“We’d be orbiting, waiting for it to all start,” Alexander said.
Alexander said he was good at providing air support by paying attention to how the OH-6 pilots reacted when receiving enemy gunfire.
“I explained that the first thing they’d do before they say anything or throw smoke up, they’d pull in all the power they got and dump the nose,” Alexander explained. “When the nose goes down the tail goes up, (I would) turn inbound and aim for where they just left because that’s where the bullets were coming from.”
Carlson said he and Bowker flew together so often and could communicate without speaking a word as evidenced during a mission while hovering just above tree level in support of U.S. ground forces engaging North Vietnamese soldiers.
“We were hovering atop of some ground troops and the bad guys had them by the belt buckle, when all of the sudden three bad guys stepped out,” Carlson said.
It was at this point that Carlson said he pointed towards them with his right hand indicating to Bowker that there were enemy forces at the position he was pointing towards. Bowker was hanging on the skids of the helicopter firing at other enemy forces when he saw Carlson pointing.
“(Bowker) killed all three of them, and he never saw them and never said a word, so as he was engaging he saw my hand come out of the window and down they went,” Carlson said.
Carlson recalled a mission that sticks in his mind to this day more than others involving a long-range reconnaissance patrol team that were under enemy fire, but having a difficult time being located.
“They asked if we could find them,” Carlson said. “I could talk to them on the radio, and I could hear them shooting, and I got to the valley they were in, but I couldn’t find them.”
Carlson said he heard all the patrol team members die on the radio.
“The last words I heard on the radio was ‘thanks for trying’, and then a burst of AK-47 (fire) and it was done,” Carlson said. “I kept saying ‘talk to me son, talk to me son, I’ll find you’.”
Carlson said that memory would be the last one in his mind to be erased.
Bowker said as the years have passed one of the things that gives him the most satisfaction when he looks back on his service in Vietnam was the lives they saved.
“What gives me the most satisfaction is knowing, thinking back of all the people that were able to become grandparents because of what we did,” Bowker said.
On Sunday, members of the association performed a roll call of at least 250 soldiers of the squadron who died between 1968-1972 in Vietnam.
At least 100 veterans and spouses attended the four-day reunion, which included events like a tour of current Army helicopter assets at a hangar on Fort Hood to a barbeque with active duty soldiers of the squadron.
The association is open to all previous and current service members who’ve served in the squadron, but the bulk of the reunion this year were of the Vietnam era, several of them having served together in the war.