"Rat Pack 16"  10/66-3/67
Miami, FL

  Red Bar Line

By   Jack W. Serig, Sr.   
Printed on Memorial Day, May 30, 1994, in the Miami Herald

For twenty-seven years I have cherished the memory of serving in South Vietnam with an MIA soldier/warrior whose hometown was Freehold, New Jersey. Chief Warrant Officer Walter F. Wrobleski, 21 years young, fresh out of Ft. Rucker, Alabama’s army helicopter flight school, was assigned to my flight platoon of UH-1D Huey ‘slick’ helicopters in early ’67.

The “D” model was termed ‘slick’ because of its lack of armament, a 7.62 mm machine gun protruding from each of two doorways of the passenger/cargo compartment manned by two enlisted gunners, one who also served as the aircraft’s crewchief. The senior pilot of the crew was the “aircraft commander” while the other logged time as “pilot”. The ‘slicks’ usual missions in this war were carrying troops and cargo, often substituting as medical evacuation carriers when regular medevac ‘choppers were not immediately available.

Walter was shot down on May 21, 1967, by then having graduated to piloting the more sophisticated, and technically more difficult to operate, UH-l “B” model gunships, because their usual takeoff configuration was ‘overweight’. The ‘B’ models protected the ‘slicks’ by using their miniguns, air-to-ground rockets and aerial launched grenades, when the lightly armed ‘slicks’ were inserting and extracting the 5th Special Forces Mike Force ground teams our unit, the 281st Assault Helicopter Company, supported.

Walter is still officially carried as MIA---missing in action. The irony is that the other three crewmembers flying with him were all rescued over the next several days after being shot down, none with serious injuries. In the extensive air and ground searches that followed the loss of his aircraft, Walter was never located, as hard as the rescue teams tried to find him.

How best to pay tribute to his memory has caused me a lot of soul-searching over the years since Walter’s loss. He wasn’t the only person our unit lost that year but his disappearance hit me the hardest because, as his platoon commander when he first arrived at our unit, my approval was eventually required to transfer him to the gunship platoon, the platoon he was serving in when he was shot down.

I don’t know that his family ever found out the story surrounding the circumstances of his loss, which my weathered memory will attempt to resurrect. I’ve always remembered Walter’s and my first meeting on the airfield tarmac at Nha Trang, the home base of our unit, located next door to the 5th Special Forces Group headquarters where many of the Mike Force missions were planned and briefed. Walter and I pre-flighted a “D” model, performed our cockpit check and flew locally for Walter’s first orientation flight. Upon landing and after the engine shutdown procedure and postflight check, we sat in the hot cockpit for longer than usual. Walter had a personal agenda to pursue. He asked me to approve his immediate assignment to the gunship platoon. I was surprised, but appreciated, Walter’s directness, formality and serious tone.

His youthful facial features from that long-ago cockpit conversation are imbedded in my memory, even today. Freckled face, reddish-brown hair, youthful vigor. A fine young man and soldier, I was to learn, epitomizing the best among the youths that America would sacrifice in an unpopular war. In my counseling session that followed his request, while we remained in the cockpit, I asked Walter to be patient, that his time would come. I explained that our unit policy required that newly arrived aviators would fly ‘slicks’ (Huey D models) initially, and with time, training and experience, he could eventually get a gunship assignment.

Walter and I flew on several more occasions, in the delta area, flying out of Bien Hoa, near Saigon, where his ‘slick’ detachment supported the local Special Forces camp commander. Each time we flew together he reminded me, rather emphatically, that he wouldn’t be completely satisfied with his job assignment until he was finally transferred to the gunship platoon. I admired his persistency and continued to monitor his flying carefully by periodic checks with his detachment commander and by flying with him when the opportunity allowed.

Finally, an opening occurred in the gunship platoon and I approved Walter’s transfer. He was ready! But I never saw him again as I was ordered to Saigon for a 60-day special assignment before returning to our battalion about 1 July, 1967. A few days later I made it a point to meet with Walter’s company commander to find out about the circumstances regarding Walter’s loss, as his gunship had been shot down in action on May 21.

The following was his company commander’s account of the rescue attempt, as I recall: Gunships were supporting an extraction of Special Forces Mike Force personnel in an area heavily defended by enemy anti-aircraft and smallarms fire. The gunships were making their passes, firing their rockets, miniguns and grenades, attempting to suppress the enemy fire to protect the Special Forces people on the ground, and the ‘slicks’, which were involved in the attempted extraction. Walter’s gunship was hit critically, and the two pilots fought the damaged controls causing the helicopter to land hard, but upright, near the extraction area. The aircraft had hit the ground so hard that the vertically aligned transmission, which gave support and power to the main rotor blades, came smashing down through the center of the rear compartment, where the two enlisted side-door gunners were located, on into the center of the cockpit area, which housed Walter and the other pilot.

All four men were observed exiting the downed bird by other aircrews supporting the mission. Each of the shot-down crewmen selected a different direction of travel from the crippled helicopter to enhance cover and concealment, and hopeful evasion from the nearby enemy ground forces. As the enemy ground fire was suppressed, an air search began, using all immediately available taskforce aircraft, for the four downed crewmen from Walter’s ship.

Toward dusk, one of the enlisted door gunners was located against the dark green of the jungle. He had made his way to the top of a small rise in the terrain as he recognized that he wouldn’t be easily spotted. He remembered he had his last military pay slip in his wallet, which was pink. He opened up the pay slip to its full size and held it up as high as he could, over his head. One of the search aircraft’s crewman spotted the pink pay slip, quite visible against the contrasting green of the surrounding vegetation. The downed crewman was rescued by one of the ‘slicks’ assigned to the operation while the gunships provided covering support during the extraction.

The air search for the other crewmen continued until nightfall but had to be temporarily halted until the next day. On returning to the area early the next morning, the day’s air search was successful in finding the other enlisted door gunner. He also recognized that the jungle green was detrimental to his being spotted, remembered he had on white boxer shorts, took them off and waved them over his head, allowing for his successful spotting and helicopter extraction. Day-2 ended without either pilot being found.

A 40-man Mike Force team, consisting of both American and South Vietnamese Special Forces personnel, conducted extensive ground searches on Day’s-3 and -4. My recollection is that on Day-4 , the other pilot, located in tall elephant grass---by his own later account to me---did not know whether the force he could hear, but not see approaching his position, were enemy or friendly. But he stood his ground with his .45 cal. Automatic pistol loaded and ready to fire aiming in the direction of the noise made by the friendly South Viet ‘tracker’ stealthily approaching his position. The elephant grass parted directly in front of the scared pilot and he recognized the South Vietnamese Special Forces uniform, with a smiling face he would never forget, which said in nearly perfect English, “Do not shoot! Friends!” The pilot was safely extracted with the Special Forces rescue team. This was the third, or perhaps fourth time, that he had been shot down, and survived.

Both ground and air searches continued through Day-4 and were finally called off when no trace of Walter could be found. For years I have toyed with the idea of getting in direct touch with Walter’s family but always hesitant that it just might be too painful for them---and for me. They have had to suffer the additional agony, for twenty-seven years, of a son---and perhaps brother, cousin, nephew---missing in action.

Some weeks ago I called the Army Casualty Section in the Pentagon to confirm that Walter’s “missing” status had not changed. The call was prompted from my review of a recently obtained updated copy of the MIA listing from the Vietnam conflict, with Walter’s name still listed. Also, I was prompted from watching Senator John Kerry’s POW/MIA Senate Committee’s investigation on C-Span.

The thought of finally writing a story on the limited information that I had after so many years of soul-searching, was beginning to materialize, not sure of where or when to send it. Walter’s loss and memory have been on my conscience ever since his disappearance. But more recently his loss and the kind, pleasant memories that I’ve always retained of him, have come to mind more often as a result of the terrible and tragic suicide of another true American hero. Severely disabled Vietnam veteran, former Marine lieutenant Lewis Puller, another of the Vietnam War’s casualties.

Acknowledging the personal hurt and pain that most Vietnam veterans hid in the deep crevices of heart and mind---mental wounds---causes of which have been debated for many years, we find through Lieutenant Puller’s death that the mental wounds can be just as deadly---and even more tragic---than physical wounds. Of course, Puller had the double burden of suffering from both. Though the mental healing never stops with the tragedies of war, being able to tell the hidden stories is a good antidote toward an endless recovery. Telling Chief Warrant Officer Walter Wroblesky’s story, somewhat helps to ease the pain of both losses.