Gunnar Hagstrom was raised in Billings. He graduated from Billings Senior High in 1967. He was with the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. This is part of his Vietnam story.
Hagstrom joined the U.S. Army, Christmas, 1968.
Hagstrom: "I grew up in Alkali Creek, and the land that we had was bordered on the northern edge of the (Billings Logan) airport. So I literally in so many ways grew up at the airport. I loved flying, not that I had any opportunity to fly, but back then, the airport had three- or four-strands barbed wire fence, and it was easy to hang out for a day at the airport and I did a lot of that. Growing up, I was in love with flying. I didn't have any idea what I'd get to do eventually, and Vietnam came along and I graduated and all of sudden, I was no good at school, barely graduated from high school, academically. I needed to do something and I needed direction and the Army said they'd send me to flight school. I took the big test and had no problem passing it with flying colors, and they said, 'Yes, we'll send you to flight school.' I took off at Christmas time in 1968 to flight school. The love of flying and the opportunity of Vietnam and the Army saying they needed plenty of warrant officers, so I volunteered with the guarantee that after flight school, I would do a year in Vietnam."
Gazette: Did the prospect of Vietnam worry you at all?
Hagstrom: "Yeah, but at that time, I was convinced that the Vietnam War was a proper war and the idea that between China and Russia and North Vietnam, the communists were basically taking over that whole part of the world. My way of thinking was that we were slowing down or stopping the movement of communism. There was a reason for me to go as far as me being patriotic and going to fight for my country. Sure, there was a concern, but I don't remember much of one."
Hagstrom went to basic training at Fort Polk, La. Then he went to Mineral Wells, Texas, for the first part of training on small, piston-driven helicopters. After that, Hagstrom went to Fort Rucker, Ala., for instrument training, the UH-1 helicopter training. After training, he had orders to go to Vietnam. He was stationed in Phu Bai, north of Da Nang.
Gazette: What did it look like?
Hagstrom: "Phu Bai had an airstrip and a lot of fixed wing and helicopters in and out of it. Very flat land, lot of rice paddies all the way around it, three or four miles from the ocean. Immediately to the west and south, we had the foothills and instantly triple canopy jungle as far as you could go, into Laos. It was solid jungle just west of Phu Bai to forever."
"Being a smaller person, I was perfect size-wise for what the Army called a 'LOACH,' which was built by the Hughes. It was the Hughes 500 A and B models. We referred to it as a 'LOACH' — low-level observation helicopter. I volunteered for it because it sounded exciting and it looked good."
Gazette: These are smaller, right?
Hagstrom: "This small helicopter would normally carry four people, max — a pilot, somebody else in the left seat and had enough room for two people in the back. The LOACH mission was basically a single pilot, observer and then a crew chief in the back. We flew with the doors off, and we were constantly low-level, hunting Charlie. ... They gave you about a week's worth of training. I would go out and fly as an observer with pilot that had quite a few months, a senior LOACH pilot. I would get the lay of the land and just how the mission went and how you flew that aircraft. ... In one week, you were kind of force fed everything. You were flying your check rides to get yourself qualified to fly the aircraft. There were flying in the AO — area of operation, then the training."
Gazette: Had you been trained on the LOACH previously?
Hagstrom: "No. I had never even gotten close to one. ... I knew about it and its mission, but I sure as heck didn't have any experience."
Gazette: What was the aircraft like? Does it handle different than the UH-1, "Huey?"
Hagstrom: "It's pretty small aircraft, and it was very fast and very responsive. It was a four-bladed system on the main rotor and very quick. ... I referred to it the whole year and ever since as 'The Porsche of the Air' as far as the way it handled; very maneuverable, and that's why it was good with the mission. Howard Hughes did a phenomenal job with this aircraft as far as crash-ability, as far as surviving a crash. They built it very well, and it handled crashes quite well. It had a great safety record and it was just fun to fly. In reality, I didn't turn 21 until 11 days after I got to country, so therefore by the time I turned 21, I had already been given my aircraft and I was out flying in the area of operation myself."
Gazette: Your job, as I understand, is to go out and get enemy to fire at you, right? You're a target? To see where they are and draw them out? That's inherently dangerous — in a small aircraft, just above the canopy.
Hagstrom: "Our mission was more defensive than being aggressive as far as shooting. We were just there to observe. My muscle and clout was the Cobras that were on top of me. The mission was, yes, to go out and hunt Charlie. The environment we were working in was all triple-canopy jungle. You really didn't see the ground very much. You were flying low and slow, just above the tree-top levels, looking for holes and hunting Charlie in whatever way. In most cases, they were down there, they could see you, hear you, and, of course, you weren't able to see them so much. What we did was gradually start slowing down in an area that we were working. ... I guess you could describe it as being a guinea pig. We were there to draw fire. In most cases, that was the only way they really revealed their position or figured out where they were was by slowing down and taking fire."
Gazette: If you're in a LOACH and you're observing and I'm the enemy, don't I figure out that the gunships are not far behind?
Hagstrom: "They know that and you can hear the Cobras above and they know the mission you're on and what's going on. But they're at war, too. ... But there'd be someone with a hair trigger and unload a clip on you and they don't give a rip and they think they can knock the guy out of the sky. Here I am, totally vulnerable, and if he's successful, I'd go down through the trees and he'd have a downed helicopter, and the Cobras really couldn't do much. We were very vulnerable. That was the mission."
Gazette: How do you fly that close to the treetops, and how far off the ground were you? How low is low?
Hagstrom: "10, 20, 30, 40 feet. It depends on what your speed is, how you're maneuvering. You come to a complete hover, if you're feeling real brave for the moment or are convinced no one is around. You're always moving because that's part of the defense. That's the idea, being hard to hit."
Gazette: How do you know when you've found them under triple canopy?
Hagstrom: "A lot of times, they'd shoot at you. But there'd be little cuts in a creek, what we call a 'blueline,' and you could see the creek if it was perfectly clear and maybe you find a trail going across. I'm 150 feet above because the trees are that tall, day after day after day. You're a scout and learn to read the signs. You can say, 'No one has traveled on that trail today.' But there might be footsteps, and yesterday there was traffic. What you're observing, you're constantly talking to pilots of the lowest of the three Cobras. He's writing down on a sectional map of what he's seeing. Eventually, that information gets back to the headquarters. Sometimes, in the evening, we'd brief the colonels or the generals."
Gazette: Can you actually see camps? What are some of the things that you see, besides trails?
Hagstrom: "You wouldn't really see camps so much because the visibility is so poor. You may smell campfire smoke, but you may not see any smoke. The jungle had such a beautiful perfect, rich, pure smell of humidity and trees — I don't know how to describe it — any sort of a whiff of something foreign, your noses were in the air all the time. You got three noses in the wind all the time, and you'd pick up whatever. ... If you're out in the middle of Charlie's country and you smell campfire smoke and Charlie's there. Also, real stagnant air. If there's a bunch of them, I can remember often, being able to smell body odor. They also smoked a lot of pot, so you could get whiffs of pot smoke through the trees. Those were indications of the smell that you would get — not very often. It might be just a split second whiff and you don't smell it again, but that whiff came from somewhere and it's below you. ... You get 25 people who haven't seen a shower in a month."
Gazette: Do you remember the first time someone shot back at you?
Hagstrom: "I don't remember the first time, maybe I got shot at the first week, when I was working with one of the older pilots. We got shot at all the time. ... We took hits a lot. That was a common thing. The minute you took fire and heard the cracks of an AK-47 100 yards or less down below you, it makes a pretty good crack. Incidentally, you're wired to that sound, and, of course, you're taking hits at the same time. The crew chief in the back, he had an M60 hanging off a bungee cord, it's a machine gun, and he'd return fire. But in his hand, he had a red smoke grenade with a pin already pulled. The instant we took fire, he dropped it directly below so that we had a reference of where I was when I took fire. Within 10 seconds, it would filter up enough for the Cobras to lock on. I would describe what I heard or the direction. Instantly, you'd take off and say, 'Taking fire, taking fire.' In a triple canopy jungle, they won't see you for very long. Maybe you go back in to see where you're taking fire, if it was just one guy shooting at you. Usually, the Cobras were there, hot to trot, and the would go in and open up with their many guns and rockets. I would go back in and see what I could see. By that time, everybody down on the ground are pissed and they're ready for war. The rest of the day was working with those people on the ground. ... We had our war for the day, or whatever it might be. If there was a significant amount, they'd call in the fast movers, usually the F4s from Da Nang, or there was aircraft carrier off the coast and we worked with the Navy quite a bit. Pretty soon, we'd have the jets in the sky and a C-and-C, command and control, up in the sky. ... Maybe there'd be a body count."
Gazette: How would you describe your attitude over there?
Hagstrom: "As I was surviving, I was making it after all the times I went down. You had to have an attitude that I fly well enough and I am good at what I am doing and there's going to have to be someone who really knows what they're doing to knock me down. I did get knocked down. I had a cocky, 21-year-old down attitude. ... I'm sure it was sort of a survival-type thing. Every day you came home you still had your arms and legs and whew, you made it through that deal — whatever it might be. I am sure I had a pretty normal attitude. You had to have something. You were constantly running scared. There was a lot of fear involved. We always had new LOACH pilots come in because we were always losing LOACH pilots. Sometimes they wouldn't last a month or two and they wouldn't show up after being in the area of observation and you went through that a lot. You were always losing these people I was drinking with last night."
Gazette: Did you get close to anyone?
Hagstrom: "Over there, you didn't. I am sure there are a lot of people who remember names and address and that type of thing. For whatever reason, when I got back on the Freedom Bird — exactly 365 days — I washed my hands of it, and I survived."
Gazette: How many times were you shot down?
Hagstrom: "I went down four times. ... I can't remember which was the first time. One of the times, I was supporting a crack Vietnamese unit and company, probably three platoons. They had an Australian adviser, and they were close to the A Shua Valley, which was a pretty famous valley that I knew a lot about and I was working with them. I had been working with them all day and it was nice working with the Australian — you had someone to communicate with on the ground. Normally that didn't happen too much. Usually you were out on your own doing your own thing and not supporting a group, particularly the South Vietnamese. But these guys were great and I had worked with them before, so anyway, they had been searching for a company of (North Vietnamese) and they knew they were close. They just were not connecting and I was out to support them for the day. About halfway through the day, I had found them and knew they were there. And, all of a sudden, it was a clear area. The trees were gone. There were a lot of high ferns and smaller trees so that I couldn't see the ground. I got a little bit closer and all of sudden — and I was pretty slow — somebody let loose a clip of an AK-47 and just filled the aircraft with bullet holes. The engine instantly quit. The engine-out horn or beeper instantly went off. And I didn't have much momentum. I probably wasn't doing 30 knots. Luckily, the hill fell off and to the direction, probably a 100 yards or more, fell off to the right ... and went and auto-rotated to the top of the trees, and I think I probably moved 100 yards from where I took the hits to coming through the top of the trees. ... This is all happening in three or four seconds. The idea is to come back and fall through the trees, tail boom. It ended up that I did that again later on. It takes you a couple seconds to bounce down, hit the ground. I remember landing upside down, full of jet fuel. The fuel cell had been ruptured with bullet holes. At that time, I just had an observer. He was on his last day of in-country. He was just out for the day to fly with me to get an idea what I did. I didn't know the guy and he hit me up and he asked if he could go flying with me because he was leaving country tomorrow. ... So here he is, the last day in country and I get him shot down. Anyway, we're upside down. We strap out of it, full of jet fuel. We grab our rifles. I know I'm close to the friendlies, but completely disoriented. I could hear crashing from two different directions coming (in the jungle). The Australian and the South Vietnamese unit made it there first and I got rescued, and so within an hour or so, we headed out and walked down this trail with a bunch of these crack Vietnamese to an area that they could bring a Huey in and they retrieved us. We went home and had a few beers at the bar that night. While that was all going on, they sent off a couple of platoons, they found the guys they were hunting and I understand that they kicked ass, and they were very appreciative that I had marked the enemy with the aircraft."