Most of the
Americans in Vietnam, I believe, never really got a chance to see the people
side of Vietnam, the Vietnam without the war, without the GI English, without
the GI culture. Flying with the 281st
did mean combat but it also meant flying all over the country on various
missions of every conceivable kind. Flying to Dalat was a real treat
and for the day the war was usually forgotten.
Dalat is the capital city that sits in the middle of the last high mountain area just before the central highlands turned into the flat bottom land of the delta. I believe its elevation was about 4,000' and hardwood forest had replaced the jungle in many areas. Dalat had a very strong French influence and for some reason there was no war up there. It had many colleges and such and many beautiful homes and mansions. It seemed to be kind of like a rest & recuperation area for both sides. The local folks took little notice of us even though we were in uniform and carried pistols. The local folks also took little notice of the many dark skinned Vietnamese that were there recuperating from injuries. Apparently the bad guys liked Dalat as well.
Most of the time we landed at the soccer field that was on the side of Dalat Lake. We would usually have to stay with the ship while our passengers went off in vehicles and the wait was usually short. Landing at the soccer field meant college kids and they surrounded you every time you landed. They were very nice and well mannered and glad to have someone to try out their English on. They always were interested in our maps, which we gladly showed them because the ones we used up there had nothing of importance on them. Apparently most of theirs were gone.
Just across the lake was a golf course though I never saw anyone playing. On the lake was a very famous restaurant that we referred to as "The Floating Restaurant". The restaurant had paddle boats that were for rent. We did get to eat there if we chose and we chose too quite often. The food was quite good as I remember and the people there treated you as if you were in a similar restaurant back home.
Some of the missions required us to land at the downtown pad called "Thunder Pad". It was at the top of a small cliff area and was surrounded by homes on three sides. The pad had two landing areas and the one on the left was the Colonel's pad which meant you could drop off and pick up there but you couldn't shut down there. Though there were two pads there, there was really room for about 4 ships. Directly across the street that was the boundary of the landing area was an orphanage that was run by French/Vietnamese nuns. As often as we could we would bring them the remains of several sundry packs. Sundry packs were boxes of necessity items (gum, pencils, paper, candy bars, etc.) for those that were not near a PX where you could buy what you needed.
Thunder Pad also stands out in my memory because it was the location of my only engine failure. With the 281st I only had one tail rotor failure. With the 192nd I had two tail rotor failures and one engine failure (a "compressor stall" if you wish to get technical). The fuel at Phan Thiet was delivered by ship and had gotten contaminated by salt water. This caused mold to form in the fuel tanks which clogged up the filters. For a period of about a week the 192nd was experiencing one or two engine failures a day. All the other chopper units were advised not to fuel up at Phan Thiet until the problem was fixed. That really put the crews on edge and we would have liked to have stood down until they got the problem fixed but such was not the case so fly we did.
My engine failure came at about the best possible time it could have though instead I would have preferred it to have been back at base. When my turn came I had just passed over the houses on landing to Thunder Pad and for some reason had to use the Colonel's pad . Sorry, nothing exciting here because when she quit I was in the last 12 inches of setting her down any ways. I tried to restart her but she wouldn't budge so there she sat until another 192nd ship came and got us. I sure was glad I didn't have to crash into the houses at the bottom of that cliff. Guess I have the LORD to thank for that. I am also glad that the Colonel was very understanding and didn't hassle me about the incident. As for the rest of the 192nd's engine failures, as I recall we were very fortunate for not one of them caused injury to any of the crews and all came over areas where the ships could land without damage.
Getting back to Thunder Pad, landing at the pad also meant that I got to see my girlfriend "Twee". Twee was about 8 and was always surrounded by her brothers and sisters and was probably the sweetheart of every helicopter crew that came into Thunder Pad. I don't think I hardly ever saw her without her hat and I don't believe I ever landed there without someone from her family coming up to the chopper. She lived in one of the houses below the pad and always came running up the steps on the left side of the pad at the sound of a chopper landing. Back then I knew the specific candy bars that those kids liked and always tried to save several for them. I believe her favorite was a "Skybar". Those kids loved to sit in the pilot's seat.
Thunder pad was very close to the downtown area of Dalat, which meant that if we were told that we would be there for a while, we could go downtown. For the life of me I don't remember if it was just a short walk or we were driven there by jeep. In any case downtown meant seeing the French side of Vietnam. It also meant "real" food at the many street side cafes and the smells and sounds that were so very far removed from the war.
There was a market place that seemed to be the center of all activity in downtown Dalat. As I recall flowers and fish & meats were limited to the bottom floor, I guess because of the wash water needed. As you went up floors the price and quality of merchandise increased until you hit the top floor, which was clothing. There was a lady up there and I do mean a "Lady" that sold the most expensive clothing in the market. I bought a beautiful sweater from her that I still have today even though I can't fit into it any longer. It will be my son's someday.
Now my aviation career has taken me all over the world and if you were to ask me where the most attractive women are I would undoubtedly say Lima, Peru. Three out of every four females there were 10's. But of all the ladies that my eyes have ever gazed upon, the lady that sold those sweaters in Dalat's market place was the one I would say was the most impressive of all. She was not just Vietnamese, she was French/Vietnamese and her Eurasian beauty and dark skinned complexion were easily matched by her figure, which she modestly tried to hide. She was about my age and spoke English fluently and had a poise and character in her demeanor that made you feel humbled in her presence. If Vietnam had a true royal family she would have been it to a tee.
From the first day I saw her I knew she represented the very best of Vietnam, something soldiers rarely got to see. I never tried to buy her favor though I heard several had tried. I heard that one officer offered her $300 ($10 was the going price) for the privilege but she politely refused. I knew of one of our guys that went up to $100 but was also politely turned down as well. Though her name has long since faded into the void of my memory I do remember her always having a smile for me as well as calling me by my first name whenever I stopped by to visit. I would always bring her one red rose, bought from a first floor vender. She would not even go across the street for lunch. Instead, I had to settle for a sandwich, eaten among brothers, sisters and several wrinkled older ladies, on the steps adjacent to her shop area. I was not even allowed to take a picture of her for her fear that it would slip into the wrong hands. I honored that as the price for her smile and friendship. I hope she did all right for herself when things changed over for Vietnam. I hope that just as I now remember her that she remembers me in the same way, someone special from long ago, someone that speaks of what the real Americans are like.
The flights home were sometimes full of talk with what we had seen but more often than not it was a quite flight back. The war was waiting for us when we returned. How fortunate I was to visit such a place.