the following are recollections written by
Colonel Joe Madrano (Blackhand)
the first commander of the 498th Medical Company
in Viet Nam
we are grateful for Colonel Madrano's
contributions then and now!
Some time ago you asked me to give you some of my recollections about the early days, rather my early days with the 498th Air Ambulance Company. Get ready for Chapter 1, but please remember that 1965 was a long time ago and little details may be exagerated or forgotten.
In 1965, the 498th was stationed here at Ft. Sam Houston, TX. It was only a shell of a unit, with just a few helicopters and was primarily a holding unit of 'helicopter people' who were about to go to school, out-patients, husbands of patients in Brook Army Hospital, transients, and the like. It was, by no means a 'combat ready' unit. The commander, Maj Don Miller, was assigned while he awaited his retirement orders.
When President Johnson decided to really assist the effort in 'Nam, things started to roll, and the 498th was listed as a unit to go. Almost immediately, the Army Surgeon General's office compiled a list of officers who were to be assigned, and I was on the list as the most senior officer. No offficer from the then 498th was included. Remember, at that time the TOE called for one Major, 6 Captains (I think) and 18 or 20 Lieutenants. The list included one Lt. Col, about 17 Majors, 2 or 3 Captains and a handful of Lieutenants.
Many of the Majors had, themselves, been unit commanders and at any other time could have served as commander of the 498th. All were well qualified, as far as flying experience was concerned and could have well been unit commanders at some level---detachment or platoon. I knew all the Majors personally and knew most of the others by name or reputation. One had been my personal student at Rucker, a number had been in my flights as students and I had served with some in other flying assignments.
As soon as I received the list, I listed all by dates of rank, to try to determine what I had and who I wanted as my leaders. Early on, I had selected the most senior Major to be the XO, then 4 as Flight Commanders and 1 as Operations Officer. Almost immediately, however, the senior Major decided to turn in his wings, as his wife's mental state of anxiety would not allow him to go to Viet Nam. And then there were calls made pertaining to personal conflicts---that so and so just could not work with, for, or even in close proximity to so and so, this Major was a SOB and worthless, and so on. Another reported with a suspected cancerous growth, and while he wanted to go with the 498th, I advised against it and removed him from the list. I was aware of many of these conflicts and accusations, and, while under no obligations to anyone, I started from scratch and made up another list, largely ignoring dates of rank, selected my leaders based on my personal knowledge of the individuals, and placed the remainder in the various platoons, all being junior to the platoon commander.
One of my selections as a Flight Commander, was a very junior Major. While he had some serious personal problems, I knew his work ethic and his worth. Furthermore, he was already at Ft. Sam Houston, and while he had a unit of his own to take care of, he assisted me in the very early preparations, made his helicopters available to me, and brought me 'up to speed' in the machine. Selecting him as a FC was not a difficult choice, but it did create a great deal of controversy among more senior Majors and to this very day, I hear grumblings from some of those who felt slighted.
When the time came to deploy, the 498th had 25 new machines and 26 pilots, including me. I sent the 25 choppers and 25 pilots to the port of embarkation and I set out for Viet Nam in the back end of a C-130---all the way from El Paso, TX to Nha Trang, a perfectly miserable flight. As you can see, from your time with the 498th, after the choppers arrived, despita a 100% availabillity rate, we were only 50% 'ready for action' as policy and good judgement required two aviators per aircraft.
But, more about that later---in Chapter 2, if you are interested.
Well, Marty, must close for now. Writing these recollections brings back a lot of memories, most of which are good. Take care and hang in there!
At your request, I am sending along more recollections of my time with the 498th in Viet Nam.
When I arrived in 'Nam as the only officer in the advanced party (as I remember, there were five or six enlisted men), I was really rushed for time. The main body was to arrive shortly, and I had to find out where we were scheduled to go, billeting, maintenance, operations---all those things necessary to set up an operational site.
I did not expect a brass band or a general officer to greet me, so I was not disappointed when the XO of the 8th Field Hospital met me and took me in tow. I was dead tired from the long trip and spent the remainder of that day and night sleeping.
The following day, bushy tailed and bright eyed, I attempted to get my bearings. You should know that at that time, no medical command structure existed in 'Nam. Yes, there were some hospitals, two air ambulance detachments, isolated medical teams and units, but no command element.In short, I could not find out for whom I was to work, where I was to work---nothing. I was told, in no uncertain words by the airfield commander in Nha Trang that the 498th was not needed or wanted in Nha Trang and that he could give me no space on "his" airfield.
I then 'thumbed' a flight to Saigon to see the MACV Surgeon. I must have been most naive, as I expected a short briefing on the tactical situation in country, at least some suggestions as to where the 498th was to operate and to whom I was to report. Instead, I was shown a map of Viet Nam, told that the area of operations was from Phan Rang, on the south coast to north of Quin Non and west to the Cambodian/Laos border--a tall order. And then, surprise of surprise, the question, "Where do you want to go, Joe? As for tactical dispositions, I was told of the pending arrival of the 1st Air Cav Div to a place just west of Quin Non, the pending arrival of two Korean divisions, somewhere in the north, a brigade of the 101st was operating in zone and another brigade was operating in and out of the same zone. Precise locations were not available.
With that wealth of information, I returned to Nha Trang and once again 'thumbed' a ride, to Ban Me Thuit, Pleiku, and Quin Non as those were the only places that could provide the necessary support for an air ambulance company. I had high hopes that the company could operate from one base, as the company had the capability to do so, but my hopes were quickly quashed. Ban Me Thuit was quickly eliminated, at Plekiu, the airfield commander agreed to provide housing and space for nine helicopters and crews; a marine squadron commander agreed to the same at Qui Non, and after a bloody battle in Nha Trang, the airfield commander was forced, by the area commander, to provide space and billets for one platoon and company headquarters, but at a price! I was forced to give up my cooks and bakers (a normal request), fire equipment and fire fighters, and my radar with operators. So, the 498th was a 'denutted' company, scattered over a wide area. How the 498th coped with those situations is well documented.
As alluded to earlier, when the main body arrived, the 498th was only 50% ready because of the number of pilots. I immediately requested more aviators from the MACV Surgeon, and shortly officers and warrant officers began to arrive. Some of the officers were, no doubt, "expendable" in their units and so were transferred. A number of warrant officers were likewise 'expendable' and resented giving up their gunship status. Among the officers who arrived was yet another major---just what the 498th needed. All, however, despite their initial disappointment at flying with a med-evac unit, performed their duties in a most outstanding manner. It is interesting to note that two of the officers later transferred to the Medical Service Corps and at least one of the warrants received a commission and requested the Medical Service Corps. I have no illusions about their being so enamored with my leadership or that of the flight commanders, but do believe that the med-evac mission opened their eyes as something worth doing and doing it well. Perhaps they learned from my mistakes, as well as what was done well.
Meanwhile, once operations began, it seemed that everyone wanted 'a piece' of the 498th. Area commanders in all places wanted control. When individual crews were dispatched to locations for a short or long stay, commanders wanted control. It was a constant battle, on my part, to travel around convincing tactical commanders that control should and must remain with me, and that I would support that unit with whatever it needed, when needed. Things got so bad, that at one point, one commander threatened to report me to me higher headquarters for refusing his 'request'.(NOTHING EVER CAME OF IT) Another time, the senior division commander of the two Korean divisions, literally attempted to 'bribe' me with a promise of a high Korean medal if I would 'give' him one platoon for his very own.
Since I was the senior MSC aviator in country, the MACV Surgeon frequently called me for advice.
On one occasion, the commander of the 82nd was evacuated to the states because of illness, and a new commander was needed. I willingly give up one of my good majors and received, in return, a brash, new 2nd Lt--a recently graduated pilot. On another occasion, I was requested to fly to a unit and talk to an aviator who wanted to turn in his wings. I did so and was convinced that the pilot had 'had it' and should be removed from flying status. I was able to arrange a transfer, the fellow served his time in 'Nam, and everyone was happy. It was old stuff to me, as I had done the same thing years earlier, in another war, when I had to counsel some "flak-happy" bombardiers and pilots, when I served as a young flight commander.
I was called upon to advise the Surgeon regarding aviators arriving in country. It seemed that the Surgeon General in Washington, continued to assign pilots to the 57th Med Det. Two majors had such orders, but it appeared to me that, despite the dates of rank, the young guy who had been serving as commander, should continue to do so. Accordingly, the two majors came to the 498th (Again, just what I needed). Both were most unhappy and disgruntled at doing a Lt's job instead of being a commander. Ironically, when the time came for one to go to the 57th, he didn't want to go, but did.
On yet another ocassion, a very senior major had orders, again to the 57th. He wrote to me expressing his hopes of commanding the unit. I, in turn,wrote to him and explained that he would not be the commander but would have to serve his time with the 498th until a suitable vacancy occured. With that, he suddenly developed high blood pressure, had his orders delayed and finally arrived in Viet Nam. He was then assigned to a non-flying assignment where his blood pressure problem was no longer a problem. It was just as well, as I didn't need another major, especially that fellow.
In time, the command structure became more clear. First, the 498th was atached to the Log Command, and later to a medical group. Still later, a medical brigade arrived and all non-divisional medical units had a home---a medical command. The command, however, did not eliminate my constant battles with local commanders who wanted their very own med-evac unit. At that time, however, I would just say, "no" and refer them to the medical group. I never lost a battle, in that regard, and was never called to explain my actions to the group commander. I, of course, kept him advised of my actions.
And so, my friends, here are my recollections on how to make friends and enemies. Of course, a good commander doesn't try to do either, things just happen once he makes his decisions. And so it went.
Cheers, Joe Madrano
498TH DUSTOFF LINKS
498TH MEDICAL COMPANY-REUNION