Larry Palmer joined the U.S. Army in 1957. He graduated from high school in Norman, Okla. He went to boot camp in Colorado. He trained in tank school after basic training. This is part of his Vietnam story.
Palmer went to Germany during the Cold War.
Palmer: "We would practice "alerts," they called them. That means we'd practice like the bad guys were coming. The East Germans or the Russians. They'd take us to an area out of town and of course, we realized it was a practice. At the same time, we knew it could be the real thing next time. Or that was the attitude we needed."
Gazette: So originally you were trained to worry more about the threat of communism and Russia and Europe than a place like Vietnam?
Palmer: "Correct. That never even entered my mind about southeast Asia at that time. ... The thought process at that time wasn't that the military was thought of as bad or doing anything wrong, but it was that if you couldn't do anything else, go into the military. Maybe that is why I went, but I learned that was definitely wrong. I went in as 18-year-old, and the great leadership I had with the noncommissioned officers taught me to trust myself and they certainly trusted me, being in the same tank with me."
After his first three-year stint, he decided to stay in the Army, but went into the Army Security Agency, which is intelligence and communications. After three years and travel throughout the world, his specialty was phased out. But, the Army needed helicopter pilots at that time. He went through officer candidates school and flight school.
Gazette: You're older than the average officer and pilot candidate. Does that make it easier or harder?
Palmer: "Easier in the sense that I could understand some of the reasoning behind some of it. ... Harder that as we went along, I had a family. It required separation from family at times. I was beginning to understand more, for me, how important family was."
He was training on light helicopters at first, then on a UH-1, commonly called a "Huey."
Palmer: "We flew single-ship missions in Vietnam, primarily. Occasionally, we'd fly formation, inserting or extracting troops."
Gazette: When you're being trained, I imagine it's clear that you're being trained for combat?
Palmer: "Absolutely. ... In flight school, we knew where we were going once it was over with. Of course, we were volunteers. I never met a helicopter pilot who was drafted into the helicopters. I know the ones that I had contact with — which was quite a few — their attitude was that the fellow on the ground has it tougher than we do. We're going to do everything we can to support them and take care of them, rescue them, whatever we could do. They appreciated it very, very much and they let us know."
Gazette: How does it feel that you're being trained, and we're gearing up for combat and yet you're also older?
Palmer: "There's people dying in Vietnam and putting their life on the line. It doesn't seem right for me to avoid it. I am a career military man, and that's what I signed up for. Whatever I was told to do, that's what I am supposed to do.
"Not that I didn't have strong feelings about Vietnam. I didn't agree with everything. The way I saw it was that South Vietnam had asked for our assistance and they were an ally. I know there are different ways to look at it, and I respect other people who have their opinions and I have heard some of them on these interviews. I don't have anything against them. Some of them served even when they didn't think it was the right thing to do, and kudos for them also. They did what they thought they should be doing."
Gazette: Let's talk about when you got orders for Vietnam.
Palmer: "There's no way you can imagine everything you're going to be confronted with when you go, but I guess I just knew that it was a chance we were going to be shot at. I didn't think about so much serving them — the guys on the ground — until I got there. ... My biggest fear was that I wasn't going to match up or that I would do something wrong that would cause a problem for somebody else, especially in combat.
"... Some of the (warrant officer) pilots were very young. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong and I respected them also. They — for lack of a better term — would cowboy if they got a chance. My direction was: Let's don't do that if we don't have to. If we need to take a chance, sure. Here again, I respected them because they were eager and they really wanted to go in and do something good."
Palmer would also work as the go-between for the infantry on the ground and the aviation personnel.
Palmer: "Sometimes, it would be a little boring or nothing going on, and other times, it would make up for it because things were going on hot and heavy."
When he arrived in Vietnam, he landed in Saigon.
Palmer: "It was commercial. ... We had a flight a crew, stewardesses, just like you normally would. They were not military or anything like that. They were commercial airlines. I knew we were landing in Saigon and if this plane could land in Saigon, that it must be pretty secure, so I didn't have much immediate fear of being shot at or anything like that. I knew some younger fellows who did. I remember seeing a stewardess assuring a young man — here again, I am certainly not criticizing him or anything he did, he was there to do his job — but his imagination, you know. It's understandable. My imagination went crazy sometimes, too. I guess I didn't think much about it.
"Then they put us on a plane, a light aircraft and took us to Cu Chi and that's where my assignment was.
"... (Shortly after arriving), we went out ... we were flying over a fire support base when they started shooting the artillery and I mean I almost jumped out of my hide. I said, 'Hey, we're flying over artillery,' and (my co-pilot) said, 'Yeah,' he said in a real calm, cool voice and said, 'Can you think of a better place to be?'
"Anyhow, we dropped the flares and here again, you're helping the people on the ground and you obviously have a reason you drop the flares. You have to trust them for that. They wouldn't just be asking for something. That was my first flight time. The missions were extremely varied. We had two platoons of general support that did everything — anything that was asked for. We had one platoon of command and control, which flew the generals and the full colonels in the division. They put me, for awhile, with that one.
"The second brigade, which was right there at Cu Chi, their main area was in the Citadel. ... It was a series of towns and villages with a lot of rice paddies. The Citadel's stronghold, of course, was that there was plenty of rice that supported the NVA that came through there, I'm sure...We would go set on the brigade headquarters' pad. Pretty soon, they'd come out and load us up with the commander's gear, and he'd always take his artillery officer with him, and occasionally his operations officer or maybe a sergeant major and then we knew he was coming and take off. It was enemy contact out there. So, we had a front-row seat to watch the whole thing develop.
"We were flying around 3,000 feet above it. He was, I guess, directing as much as he thought needed to be directing. It was some interesting times on that. Here again, a lot of the time, we would just go out and watch the enemy and our guys did their thing. I never saw any time I was in Vietnam that the battle was lost — the individual battle. Yet, we had to leave because the pressure back home. And it was somewhat understandable, too. It wasn't easy to necessarily see why we were there.
"... I had nothing but respect for everyone who was doing their job, the artillery, the infantry, and we worked with them and here again, I think most of the guys were doing it because we knew there were guys who would be in a bind often. It was just a matter helping the people out. I had been through OCS, so I knew some of the guys who were down there. I didn't know if I was involved with them when I flew. Oftentimes, I would have an idea where some of them were. There was a strong mission feeling in our unit."
Gazette: When you were flying with the colonels and generals. You have radios, are you hearing what they're saying or their chatter?
Palmer: "Not all of it. One of the things that made our command-and-control helicopter different was that we carried a series of radios in the back in the cargo area where he was sitting. He had the seat facing the one side where he could see real good in the door. So he had that so that he could talk to the (troops). The artillery officer was plugged into the artillery and whoever else was with him might have been talking to someone on the ground. Other than that, there was a lot of communication going on. Here again, we had the best of everything and even the best people I believe."
Gazette: What was it like watching the whole battle from 3,000 feet? It must have been fascinating.
Palmer: "Yes, to some degree it was. Almost always the same thing happened: Infantry was on patrol to find the bad guys. That's the first 'F' they teach in infantry — find them. They would usually find them walking into them. The first one or two fellows up front would get shot. The enemy did not want to kill them because they were laying there, and we would try to get them out to save them. If they were dead, of course, there wouldn't be any big rush. We would not throw the heavy stuff until we got the one or two fellows out. Not all the time, but a lot of the time, it was the way it developed.
"Once they did get them out, the artillery really hammered them. Oftentimes, they would bring Air Force fighters/bombers in. First, forward air control would go low and slow and he had one thing and that was the markers. He would mark the target because the aircraft were going so fast that they needed to see where they marked it. So he was the guy that took a hit and oftentimes said, 'Ouch' or grunt or that he's been shot and then they would come and drop their bombs. Then, they would call the helicopter gunships in — from my unit, in fact. They'd shoot them up and then the infantry would, after awhile, go through and mop up."